ON his 17th year as a public servant of the Philippine capital, Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno is still relentless in pursuing his dreams for his beloved city. And yet he senses that fate may be leading him toward doing more for country and the betterment of the Filipino.
“I was born in Tondo, Manila and I know every part of this city. Name a street here and I can tell you how to get there. I will be forever thankful to all Manileños who entrusted me with 17 years of fruitful service, but life has many surprises and I believe that whatever happens in the future, I will always do whatever would be good for all,” he related to The Sunday Times Magazine in an exclusive interview.
Moreno has several offers from political parties to run for the Senate, but as of this writing, he confessed that he is still in the process of discerning his plans for the 2016 elections.
Isko Moreno’s life story is a classic tale of a poor man’s rise to success. As most everyone knows, he was a basurero (scavenger) as a child, whose good looks later landed him a career in show business. Eventually, he found his calling in public service, and has since risen to the second highest elected position of Manila City.
“I know how it is to be poor so I know the needs of the people. It is for this reason that my mission has always been to alleviate the lives of the poor people in Manila,” said the Vice Mayor.
Born on October 24, 1974 in Parola, Tondo to Joaquin Domagoso of Antique and Rosario Moreno of Samar, the young Francisco (the Vice Mayor’s real name) witnessed how his parents worked hard as a stevedore in Manila North Harbor and a laundry woman in their neighborhood respectively to make ends meet. Growing up in a shanty community where eating three times a day was considered a luxury, Moreno helped his family survive poverty by becoming a basusero himself, while studying at the Rosauro Almario Elementary School.
Even as he grew up taking on odd jobs to augment his parents’ meager earnings, Moreno firmly believed that the only way to better his family’s situation is through education. Thus, he never stopped schooling, even if he had to spend his free time as a pedicab driver just so he completed high school.
His immediate plan after graduation was to enroll at the Philippine Maritime Institute to become a seaman, but he was discovered by a talent scout, which led him to become a popular showbiz celebrity.
And, as he started to make a better life for himself and his family through his acting career, Moreno realized that he was finally in a position to help the sad plight of his neighbors in Tondo. It was then he decided to run for the city council at the age of 23, making history as the youngest elected city councilor in Manila City.
With a good track record backing him, he was reelected in 2001 as No. 1 councilor in the city, and again landed as one of the topnotchers in his final term in 2004.
Moreno’s stint as a three-term councilor for nine years speaks for itself. He authored and sponsored pro-poor or-dinances and resolutions especially in concerns like housing, health and education.
“Like I said, I know how it feels to live in a squatter area because I used to live there, so as soon as I was elected as councilor, housing became one of my top priorities. There were many ordinances that the council and I passed in the succeeding years with regard to helping homeless Manileños,” related Moreno.
Nevertheless, he admitted that in his first term as councilor in the first district of Manila, he was still shocked over the magnitude of problems around him. Among these concerns is the lack of access to health and medical services for the less fortunate.
“When a poor person becomes sick, he is doubly deprived. One, he can’t work and therefore he has nothing to eat for the day. Since he is poor, he will be dependent on whatever free health benefits that the government can give him, so I decided to lead a health campaign with the city council,” Moreno said.
He started off with initiating a “healthy and fit campaign” at the city council, followed by weekly medical missions in depressed areas. To address the high cost of medicines, he established the Botika ni Isko, a mini-pharmacy right at the city hall where prescription drugs and vitamins are given for free. Other projects under his health care initia-tives include the annual summer Operation Libreng Tule (free circumcision), Oplan Katarata (free cataract opera-tion), and Oplan Kagat Aso (an free anti-rabies immunization activity for pet dogs).
“Another successful health project of Manila is the construction of the Sta. Ana Hospital. As the presiding officer of the city council at that time, we passed measures that would help the city government realize the building of hospitals. This also led to the construction of public school buildings that would cater to poor but deserving students from Manila by providing them with free education,” Moreno continued.
Aware of the importance of education to liberate people from poverty, Moreno launched ISCOM, which aims to make people from all walks of life computer-literate. Starting out with just one Computer Learning Center in 1999, ISCOM has expanded to seven locations to cater to the growing number of Manileños. In partnership with well-meaning friends, the Iskolar ng Bayan program also continues to provide scholarships to poor but deserving stu-dents. The Lakbay Alalay Program, on the other hand, benefits students who cannot afford to participate in educa-tional tours and experiences.
Moreno further initiated the PEP or Promoting English Proficiency program through the assistance of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines. To date, 10 computer speech laboratories have been established in Ton-do High School, Moreno’s alma mater, providing training and refresher courses to both members of its faculty and students.
The big leap
In 2007, Moreno took a big leap when he was elected as the youngest vice mayor of Manila at age 32. He went on to win his re-election bid in 2010 garnering an overwhelming 73.43 percent of votes, as well as this, his third and final term in office.
An inspiration to his peers, he was elected president of the Vice Mayors League of the Philippines in 2011 and was unanimously reelected as national president in 2014.
As vice mayor, Moreno continued his meaningful projects for Manila with the support of the city council. Since 2007, his Trabaho Para sa Manileño program has conducted some 20 local and overseas job fairs, which resulted in thousands of job generated.
To address the need to make daily living easier, the Asenso Manileño program was also launched with services like “Murang Karne at Pagkain,” free legal services, free haircut, and libreng tubig among others.
In February 2008, due of the alarming rise in fire incidents, Moreno worked to purchase a an engine firetruck to allow for quicker responses to save lives and property. Based in Tondo, the Kaagapay Engine Firetruck is managed by volunteer fire fighters who are always ready to respond to different emergencies.
Education as an equalizer
Despite his busy schedule as a councilor, Moreno managed to pursue and finish a college education, obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Management degree at the International Academy of Management Economics. He also took up crash courses in local legislation and finance at the University of the Philippines, and enrolled at the Arellano College of Law. He was on his way to third year Law Proper when he decided to go full time as vice mayor.
Even as he put his law study on hold, he made time to take short courses to equip himself with more knowledge on how to be the best public servant he can be.
“Then came the chance to take a short course in Harvard and I grabbed it,” he said explaining that it was an Execu-tive Education Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University.
He was also part of the International Visitors Leadership Program, sponsored by the US Department of State in Washington DC in 2010.
“I was nominated and chosen by the US State of Department for this program. We were 13 from all over the world and I was the only Filipino lucky to be chosen. I was sent to Washington and other states like Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Seattle. We studied programs about effectivity and efficiency in governance, and also transparency in office,” Moreno enumerated.
He was also accepted at the Oxford University for The Oxford Strategic Leadership Program, and was conferred a doctorate degree for Community Development by the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.
Inspiring indeed, Vice Mayor Isko Moreno’s life is proof that poverty should never be a hindrance to succeed, and more significantly, to desire to help others. As he always says, education is the key—the great equalizer that can bring people from all walks of life on equal footing.
Now that Moreno is faced with another challenge in his political career, he is certain that whatever decision or path he decides to take, it will be for the good of many.
“I believe there’s only one characteristic that a public servant should possess to be able to be an effective leader—compassion for his constituents. That will lead him to do whatever it takes to truly be of service,” concluded Moreno.