Isko Moreno has nothing to lose anymore

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In person, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is charming and relatable. He’s an engaging interview who never breaks eye contact. Photo by JL JAVIER

When he steps out of his private quarters for his interview, presidential candidate and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso seems relaxed. He’s ditched the blue polo and barong for a white hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. He smiles generously. He knows the reporters by name and jokes freely with them.

“Mukhang GQ kayo sir,” quips one of the reporters as they prepare the lights. “GQ…” Moreno starts. Beat. “Baka Galing Quiapo,” he says. The room erupts in laughter on cue. At Manila City Hall, this Batang Tondo is in his element.

And why wouldn’t he be? This nation’s capital is Moreno’s home. “The City of Manila is the window of opportunity for every Filipino,” he tells me. When I ask him to describe Manilenyos, he uses the word pursigido. “This city is tough. You need guts if you want to survive.”

Look no further than Moreno, whose origin story is proof of what it takes to survive Manila’s streets. It’s the stuff of actual telenovelas. Before he was Isko Moreno, he was Scott Domagoso. A scavenger and pedicab driver from Tondo, the son of a labandera and stevedore. A haciendero of smoking mountains of garbage, he joked, whose fortunes changed forever when he was scouted at a funeral to be one of Kuya Germs’ boys on "That’s Entertainment."

Moreno's origin story is proof of what it takes to survive Manila’s streets. Photo by JL JAVIER

Now he sits on Manila’s throne. The walls along Padre Burgos Avenue are plastered with Moreno’s campaign posters. Tricycle drivers and jeepney barkers wear Isko Moreno 2022 shirts. His staff at city hall admire him. “His work ethic inspires you,” said one of his staff members in an email. Another reporter in the room tells me that Moreno is one of the best candidates to cover. “He’ll always give you his all,” he tells me.

But Manila isn’t (and won’t ever be) the Philippines. According to an April survey, Moreno was a distant third with only 8% of voter preference. A gulf separated him and Vice President Leni Robredo who was second place at 24%. But even if you add Robredo and Moreno’s votes, it still wont match up to this election’s frontrunner—son of ousted dictator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who leads surveys with an unprecedented 56%. A recent Pulse Asia survey placed him fourth after Manny Pacquiao, but in OCTA Research’s latest pre-election survey, he maintained the third spot.

Moreno and his camp insist that it’ll be a three-way race. His veteran campaign manager Lito Banayo (who was also President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign strategist in 2016) said that the surveys don’t reflect the situation on the ground. They’ve cited their own surveys and claim that the “silent majority” will choose Moreno on election day. But while they downplay the survey’s results for voter preference, they’ve changed strategies around the fact that Moreno is the top second choice for most voters.

In sorties, Moreno tells crowds that a vote for him is a vote for “peace of mind,” hinting that a future of unrest waits if either the “red” or the “dilaw” win. In doomsday prophet tones, Moreno told a crowd, “Kapag nanalo ang pula, hindi patatahimikin ang dilaw. Maghihiganti… Magaaway muli ang malalaking pulitiko ng ating bansa.” Experts have called this claim pure speculation.

In a joint press conference with other survey laggards at the Manila Peninsula — the site of the 2007 mutiny against then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — Moreno called for “unity” and Robredo’s withdrawal in the same breath to make way for “less divisive” candidates. He claimed that others might have a better shot at beating Marcos.

“Withdraw, come and join us. Pwede pa-sub? Pa-sub naman,” Moreno said, using a basketball analogy. “Baka kami maka 3-points, isa sa amin.”

It feels like déjà vu. The last time I heard the words “silent majority” and calls for “unity” in order to avoid a cataclysmic administration was back in 2016, when another presidential candidate asked a woman to step down. We all know how that ended.

Six months ago, Moreno was a pre-election frontrunner. Early surveys put him at par with Marcos in second place for president and the top choice for vice president. He was an attractive, possibly winnable candidate.

In person, it’s even easier to see why. Moreno is charming and relatable. He’s an engaging interview who never breaks eye contact. He looks like a matinee idol but peppers his speech with words like “kodli” and “lespu” (likod and pulis). He poses for a TikTok video and holds up the two joints hand sign with the cameramen who ask for selfies.

But Moreno isn’t just some actor-turned-politician, he’s a tenured public servant. He’s been in government for more than half of his life, having served as councilor and vice mayor for three terms before becoming mayor in 2019. He won the election by a landslide, beating out Manila’s scions Alfredo Lim and Erap Estrada.

Moreno has been in government for more than half of his life, having served as councilor and vice mayor for three terms before becoming mayor in 2019. Photo by JL JAVIER

Moreno’s mark on Manila is everywhere. Albeit inchoate, his stint as a mayor was spent on giving Manila a very visible facelift. He revamped and restored landmarks like the Manila Zoo, the Metropolitan Theater, and the Arroceros Forest Park. He opened the iconic Manila City Hall Clock Tower to tourists, which had previously just been used as storage. He erected several massive vertical housing projects for Manila’s poorest residents. He also cleaned up the Lagusnilad Underpass, declaring that the underpass was for everybody.

Some have called these projects anti-poor, to which Moreno replied in a radio interview in technocratic tones: “Binabalanse ko ang pagpapatakbo ng gobyerno," he said. "Taong-gobyerno na tayo ngayon. Kailangan natin mamahala."

When the pandemic happened, Moreno assumed the role of crisis manager. He was lauded for his hands-on COVID-19 response, and Manila came out as a champion city in Bloomberg Philanthropist’s 2021 Mayor’s Challenge.

The idea of a Moreno presidency seemed promising, or at the very least acceptable. His track record and compelling narrative had the potential to stack against other potential presidentiables Sara Duterte and Marcos. He denied allegations that he was Duterte’s secret candidate, even going as far as saying he “disagreed with them.” There was even a time that 1Sambayan, the opposition coalition, was considering endorsing Moreno as their top candidate.

But everyone knows that everything is elastic during Philippine elections. Nothing is ever fixed. For instance: does anyone remember that Senator Bato dela Rosa was once a part of this presidential race?

And so Moreno filed. But when administration candidate Bong Go dropped out of the race Moreno began courting Duterte’s blessing. This flip-flopping behavior soon became a major talking point: “I can work with anybody,” Moreno often said.

He promised to be a “healing president” who would unite the polarized electorate on his middle path. Spurred by Moreno’s vague stand on the Marcoses, Robredo announced her intention to run for president.

Robredo’s candidacy has been one of Moreno’s more obvious sore spots. When she filed, Moreno was visibly displeased. In a Rappler report, he called her “a fake leader with a fake color.” He criticized her failed attempts to unify the opposition and that she was merely siding with the Aquinos and the “yellowtards” in their fight against the dictator’s family.

She is, after all, the big pink monkey wrench in what should have been Moreno’s unstoppable quest for the presidency. His survey numbers have stalled where Robredo’s have surged. A huge gap still remains between Robredo and Marcos, but no one can deny she has found momentum. Moreno’s numbers on the other hand have remained largely the same since February. In recent weeks, a number of his volunteer groups have begun defecting.

“Nag-switch na rin po ‘yung IM Pilipinas Zamboanga,” said a reporter on the sidelines during the interview. To which Moreno replied with a straight face: “Wala naman kaming ganun.” (Fact check: There really is an IM Pilipinas Zamboanga Chapter.)

Some speculate that the “unity” presscon was Moreno’s last ditch effort at energizing a campaign that’s lost its steam. But it seems the presscon rendered the opposite effect: Candidates Ping Lacson, Noberto Gonzales, Manny Pacquiao, and Moreno’s running mate Willie Ong have distanced themselves from his calls for Robredo’s withdrawal.

Officials and volunteers from Moreno’s party have expressed profound disappointment with his remarks and have decided to support Robredo instead. A key sectoral group in vote-rich Cebu who first called on Moreno to run in 2021 has officially switched their endorsement to Robredo. They’ve called on other organizations to shift their support as well.

Behind the scenes of Mayor Isko Moreno's "In Private" interview with CNN Philippines Senior Anchor Pinky Webb. Photo by JL JAVIER

When they cut the cameras and turn the lights off after his one-on-one interview, Moreno looked visibly spent, but he obliges my request for follow-up questions anyway. He cracks jokes at some of them (“Favorite book?”, “Enough about books, how about movies?”, “Okay, favorite movie?”, “The Godfather.”, “After that?”, “The Godfather Part II.”) but engages the more serious ones.

“Galing ako sa wala,” he often says, which is why Moreno has nothing to lose. When you come from a life of eating garbage, everything else can only be gain. This has been the theme of Moreno’s entire public life. In a recently uploaded video of ‘90s talk show “Mel & Jay," a young Moreno tells the hosts that he didn’t hesitate to try acting. “Bakit hindi ko naman po masusubukan? Wala namang mawawala sa akin,” he said.

“Anything above zero is positive,” Moreno said in a separate interview with CNN Philippines Life. “Doing something will at least give you something.”