IF it weren't for the People's Champ, Buhay Party-list pepresentative and former Manila mayor Jose "Lito" Atienza Jr. would be sipping Piña Coladas with his wife in Hawaii by now and perfectly blending in with the islanders.
But even if the 80-year-old born and bred Manileño had dedicated 50 years of his life to public service in various capacities, he realized it wasn't time to wear his floral shirts as Citizen Lito just yet when the man whom he calls "the David among Goliaths" in next year's presidential race, Sen. Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquaio, came to ask for his help.
"I had many offers [in the run-up to the filing of certificates of candidacy in October]. Mayroong senatorial, may mayor ng Maynila ulit... But my point is I have given enough years of public service and to public office and can already say I succeeded [in what I had set out to do]," Atienza related in a pocket interview with Entertainment editors on Wednesday morning.
A seasoned politician, Atienza held three consecutive terms as Manila City mayor following a six-year mandate as vice mayor to the late former senator and mayor Alfredo Lim. Before his foray into local government, he was appointed National Housing Authority general manager under the first Aquino administration and later held office as Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary in former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's Cabinet.
"That's why ayoko na sanang tumakbo after 50 years active na labanan ko ang Martial Law, ang mga Marcos at ang mga higante ng Maynila — ang mga Maceda, Bagatsing at Lopez —at tinalo ko pa," he said.
Happily married to the same woman for 55 years (the former Evelina Ilagan), Atienza reiterated, "Kaya nga naka-schedule na kami ng misis ko magbabakasyon. Pero nag-iba ang ihip ng hangin, eh."
The two-term congressman, whose Buhay Party-list advocates the Filipino's right to a decent life based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, admitted he was just as stunned as the public and his own family when Pacquiao chose him to be his running mate.
In fact, he felt compelled to ask the renowned Filipino boxer, "Why me?" when Pacquiao came knocking at his door just recently.
"Sabi ko, 'Ang dami-dami dyang malaking senador na puwede mong imbitahan na mas popular,' pero ang sabi ni Manny, 'Ikaw ang kailangan kong pakiusapan.'"
Apparently, in searching for his running mate, Pacquaio had "studied" Atienza's five-decade career in government and found him to be " a very, very good and honest public official."
"Sabi niya, 'You do not have a single graft case pending to sully your name kaya ang pinili ko 'yung pinakamalinis sa tingin ko dahil ang plataporma ko ay linisin ang gobyerno sa kurapsyon.'"
Personal friends too for the last 20 years, Atienza, who had always treated Pacquaio like a son, was moved by the 42-year-old's plea for help — to run his administration should he win the presidency.
"Manny said, 'I need your 50-year experience to make the life of the Filipinos better,'" Atienza added.
Through prayer and meditation, Atienza asked God if it is indeed His will that he join Pacquiao in this ultimate fight for the Filipino people.
"I tried my best to refuse Manny, so I prayed even harder the night before I was to give him my decision. At ang sagot ng Panginoon napakabilis at napaka linaw. [That Manny] has good intentions for your country, and you have to help him,' kaya pumayag ako."
Given his 50-year experience in government against Pacquiao's two terms as Sarangani representative and senator, Atienza clearly needed to explain the qualities he sees in the poor boy-turned-world boxing phenomenon that make him fit to become president of the republic.
"Iba lang ang puso ni Manny. 'Yung pera na pinaghirapan niya pinamimigay niya sa mga taong nangangailangan. Ang tanong ko sa ibang mga kandidato na sobra sobra pera, bakit hindi din nila gamitin nyon para sa taong bayan at hindi para sa mga trolls?"
As he finds himself constantly defending Pacquiao from critics, The Manila Times asked Atienza if he is ready for what seems like his own boxing match come campaign season.
"Hindi naman ako tiga-sangga because Manny is a world champion," he quickly replied. "Sa tingin ko si Manny matalino pa sa akin. Kasi tulad ng sabi niya, 'yung galing niya sa ring, kinukuha niya sa paggamit ng ulo niya, kung saan dapat tamaan ang kalaban.
"And I tell you, Manny's No. 1 quality is he listens, then he digests [what he is told and advised] and does what is right. Of course, tulad ng sabi niya, kailangan niya 'yung ating 50-year experience sa politika and talagang tutulungan ko siya. At kung may Freddie Roach daw siya sa boxing, ako ang Freddie Roach niya sa pulitika."