IT’S tragic that the significance of a person to the nation becomes more felt only after he or she is gone. Recently, veteran political reporters Bert de Guzman of Balita and Melo Acuna, formerly of Radio Veritas, commented that they miss the likes of the late Speaker Ramon “Monching” Mitra Jr.
I completely agree with them—and I’m sure a lot of other political observers do, too, considering the kind of leadership being exhibited by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez that borders on dictatorship. This is so unlike the propensity for consensus-building that was the hallmark of Monching Mitra and even of his successor, Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Monching Mitra was Speaker of the Eighth Congress (1987 to1992). The then President Corazon Aquino didn’t meddle in House affairs, so Monching became Speaker mainly through his own efforts. In fact, in a majority caucus before the convening of the Eighth Congress, he defeated the late Rizal Rep. Francisco “Komong” Sumulong, the uncle of President Cory, to become the consensus candidate for Speaker. Had she intervened—and she was at the height of her popularity then—Sumulong and not Mitra would have been the first post-EDSA Speaker. Mitra later endorsed Sumulong as majority leader.
I consider the House of the Eighth Congress, along with that of the Ninth headed by De Venecia, as the best I had ever covered. Mitra was fortunate to preside over a House whose members were elected while the fervor of EDSA 1 was still burning. Many won despite meager campaign funding, like Venancio Garduque of Samar, Oscar Santos of Quezon, and Gregorio Andolana of North Cotabato.
The only congressional district where a lot of money was spent in that 1987 election was in the second district of Iloilo, in the contest between Fermin Caram Jr., an airline owner who was the district’s congressman from 1965 to 1972, and a member of the regular Batasan (1984 to 1986), and Albertito Lopez, the son of former Vice President Fernando Lopez, trying his hand at politics for the first time. Lopez won by a landslide, no doubt aided by his famous family name, the endorsement of President Cory and, of course, campaign funds that rivaled that of Caram.
With majority of congressmen eager to fulfill the promise of EDSA 1, and with President Cory respectful of Congress as a co-equal branch of government, Speaker Monching Mitra had his job cut out for him. All bills that became priority had his imprimatur but he never coerced his colleagues into supporting them.
As far as I can remember, the only time he used the strong arm was when he said all committee chairmen should join the newly organized Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. Members of the Liberal Party refused. Bataan’s Tong Payumo parted with his public works committee, Bulacan’s Jun Rivera with his defense committee and Pasay City’s Lorna Verano-Yap with her foreign affairs committee, rather than join the LDP.
Earlier, I wrote that Monching Mitra became Speaker mainly through his efforts and force of personality. The same could be said of his foray into politics. He was congressman of Palawan from 1965 to 1971, was senator when martial law closed down the legislature, and was a member of the regular Batasan before he returned in the Eighth Congress as Palawan representative.
His father and namesake was the representative of the Benguet-Baguio City congressional district for six terms. Why didn’t he run there instead of in Palawan when he ran for the first time in 1965? I asked him this question when I was the Batasan reporter of Veritas newsmagazine. He could have won without a sweat had he run in his father’s district. Instead, he ran in Palawan against Gaudencio Abordo who had been congressman since 1953. His answer to my question revealed that he was a giant of a man, one who rose on his own merits.
Monching Mitra said his father told him at a family gathering in 1965 that he was retiring from politics and that President Ferdinand Marcos had agreed that he (Monching) would run in Baguio as Nacionalista candidate. Monching said he had his own plans and that was to run in Palawan as a Liberal.
“My father was angry. He said I didn’t stand a chance against Abordo and that I could not expect any help from him,” Monching recalled.
He replied that he wasn’t seeking his father’s help, and abruptly left the family gathering with his wife, Cecille.
“I am a native of Palawan, not of Baguio City. Had I been elected in Baguio, I would never have felt that I belonged in Congress. The people there would be voting not for me but for my father since he’s the one established there,” he said.
Those who continue to denigrate Monching Mitra as a mere traditional politician should digest these words of his and give him the proper honor that he deserves.