“He had ‘to an exceptional degree, the gift of friendship’ the foundation of which were warmth, solicitude and finely balanced flattery
“He compartmentalized his relationships, much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. His friends came in layers and each layer considered itself closest to the center…”
That’s a page from a best-selling biography written by the esteemed Sally Bedel-Smith, and I laughed when I read it.With my propensity for always looking for local counterparts of anything or anyone foreign, I thought Bedell-Smith might as well have been describing Bacolod Mayor Evelio R Leonardia, the unlikely politician who went on to change the landscape and the course of the city’s political history.
Like Bedell-Smith’s principal character, Leonardia did not enter politics – he crashed upon it and started with tentative, if youthful steps, that eventually became huge strides that impacted on the political landscape and reshaped it.
And like Bedell-Smith’s popular leading man, who is now a modern historical figure, the fearless forecast is history will be more than kind to Leonardia who has proven himself a natural force of change sometimes so subtle not a few people had initially dismissed him as just another youthful and good-looking face.
Thrice he has proven to be the stuff that makes history. He became mayor by defeating one of the biggest political names not only in Bacolod but also throughout Negros Occidental in its time, effectively ending one of the oldest local political dynasties. He is also the first official to have gone through the executive ladders; starting as councilor, he became vice-mayor, then mayor and also congressman. Landmarks he has built, crowned by the New Government Center perhaps one of the most photographed buildings in the country today, a new “town” which started as a squatters relocation site.With the construction of the NGC, he also sparked the rise of a new growth center in the East.
Then there is the Bacolod City College, which has already graduated over 10,000 students. It has become such a huge educational institution now it seems inconceivable that when
Leonardia first laid out his vision for it, he was viciously criticized, mocked and even villified. Nobody believed it can be done.
There is also Purok Progreso, a community of about 5, 000 former informal settlers who have finally unshackled themselves from landlessness and literally found their places under the sun in this relocation site.
Point to me a Bacolod leader, past and present, who can match these high impact projects,. I can only think of our leaders who wrote the charter that created our city and the ones who started the reclamation area.
When he started people thought he was out simply to try what politics is about and then when things settled into a grind, he would move on, and pursue other interests. Nobody thought he’d last in politics long. Nobody expected him to. The youngest sibling in a brood of nine he was, like all those born last in Pinoy families, not expected to live life with its difficulties and agonies. He was expected to simply charm his way through life, why would he bother? He could have had anything he wanted, courtesy of solicitous and adoring older siblings, but he went on to stay very long in politics. And not just stay long, but also stay, on top.
He is now the longest-serving mayor of the city, his last electoral victory unprecedented and history-making: He won over his long-time political foe, Monico Puentevella with a scorecard never seen yet in Bacolod: 120, 231 vs. 97, 993 for a lead of 22,238 votes, And his opponent was the incumbent, with all the resources of government in his hands. Apparently, the long-cherished “equity of the incumbent” failed to work here. Once again, Leonardia tore at yet another political verity.
The mayor was first elected no.1 councilor, the same time Puentevella was. They went on to run for the vice-mayoralty post at the same time, which Leonardia won. Leonardia eventually became mayor while Puentevella became congressman. In 2010, they faced off for the mayoralty seat, which Leonardia who was incumbent at that time, handily won.
His victory over the incumbent in 2016 proved not just his political leadership in the city. The continued strengteh of his Grupo Progreso party reaffirm how his fingers remain on the political strings.
His decision to challenge his bitterest critics also proved his cunning and savvy, his capacity to look far beyond the moment and into the future. His critics thought, and they said so aloud, that he was a fool to challenge the incumbent. And maybe because they underestimated him, he was able to work his strategies out and proved them all wrong. No one, especially not his opponents even imagined how hard he would work to ensure his and later, his people’s victory.
I recall how a close friend who is also a Puentevella partisan had smugly asked me early in the campaign: Why is Bing running? And running against an incumbent who will never allow him to win? I simply retorted: Did you not dare him to run? You literally invited him to run, and so there, your dream election realized.
Two days after the election, when the election returns had been canvassed already, I met my friend again and I asked him: what happened? How could an incumbent lose? His reply: we did not expect our people would do what they did; we also did not expect Leonardia would deploy the strat he deployed. I left it at that.
By the way, do you know whose biography it was that Bedell Smith wrote? America’s John F Kennedy, or JFK. The book is titled, “Grace and Power: Inside The Kennedy White House.”*