- Padaca became first known as a broadcaster of Bombo Radyo in Isabela Province. Her radio show increasingly focused on the province’s intractable problems—a stagnating rural economy, multifaceted corruption, a plague of illegal gambling and logging, a ravaged environment. She came to believe that many of them were rooted in the intractable Dys, the ruling family monopolizing positions from village-level to governorship. Yet few dared to challenge them, except Padaca.
- In 2001 she ran for Congress, with little money and no political base to speak of. She was beaten by the ruling dynasty after a congressional election tribunal invalidated all the ballots marked “Grace.” In 2004 she was back to run for provincial governor against the incumbent Governor Dy. She called voters to “Free Isabela” and when the counting was over, she had won a clear mandate.
- As governor, she moved quickly to neutralize efforts by Dy loyalists to sabotage her governorship. She prioritized her agenda: restore the province’s fiscal credibility, provide constituents with a sounder government-backed medical coverage, implement a program to subsidize rice and corn farmers.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her empowering voters in the Philippines’ Isabela Province to reclaim their democratic right to elect leaders of their own choosing and to contribute as full partners in their own development.”
Elections are the central institution of Filipino democracy. As Governor Grace Padaca puts it, they give voters a chance “to get the wrong people out of government and the right people in.” In practice, however, Filipino elections are almost always contests for power among an elite few. In most provinces, a handful of families controls political power from one generation to the next. Everyone else may vote, but the choices are limited to a cast of all-too-familiar characters. Such was the case in Isabela Province when Governor Padaca launched her unlikely political career.
Maria Gracia Cielo Magno Padaca was born in 1963 and crippled early in childhood by polio. Taunted by other children, she retreated into a world of books and learned to excel at school. She won scholarships to help pay her own way and, by twenty-one, had qualified as a certified public accountant. At Bombo Radyo in Cauayan, Isabela, she took an accounting job and, almost serendipitously, was soon a broadcaster, too. This suited her, she says, because “I could be heard but not seen.”
Every day, for the next fourteen years, hard-hitting “Bombo Grace” took up the issues of the day over the radio. In Isabela, the Dy family controlled politics from the governor’s mansion to the smallest town. As day-by-day Padaca exposed the province’s intractable problems-a stagnating rural economy, multifaceted corruption, a plague of illegal gambling and logging, a ravaged environment-she came to believe that many of them were rooted in the intractable Dys. Yet few dared to challenge them. “This is not what I had been taught democracy should be,” she said. Vowing not to be someone who complained constantly “without lifting a finger,” in 2001 she ran for Congress.
With little money and no political base to speak of, Padaca crisscrossed the province in a borrowed truck, taking her case to the people. Her opponent from the ruling dynasty was declared the winner by forty-eight votes-this after a congressional election tribunal invalidated all the ballots marked “Grace.”
Padaca returned to the fray in 2004 to run for provincial governor. Her opponent was the incumbent, whose father and brother had also been governor. Bucking the opposition of thirty-three mayors and the hysterical charge that she was in league with terrorists, Padaca urged voters to “Free Isabela.” On election day-as her volunteers guarded the ballot boxes-they did. She won by more than forty-four thousand votes.
This was “the easy part,” Padaca says. As governor, she moved quickly to neutralize efforts by Dy loyalists to sabotage her governorship and astutely prioritized her agenda. She paid off two-thirds of the province’s huge debts and restored its fiscal credibility. She abandoned a bankrupt medical scheme for a sounder government-backed plan. And she launched a program to subsidize rice and corn farmers. These programs yielded fresh funds for new infrastructure, better medical coverage for more beneficiaries, and a boon for the province’s farmers and agribusiness sector. Meanwhile, Padaca increased the budgets for education and reforestation and made inroads against illegal logging and gambling. With the province on a healthy footing, she challenged the dynasty again in 2007 and was elected to a second term.
As she pursues her ambitious agenda today, Governor Grace stays in close touch with her constituents. She challenges them to reach beyond their political comfort zones and to “defend what is good in society.” She reminds them that the people of Isabela are no longer “the victims of cheaters and opportunists.” Her victory is their victory, she says. “I will work every day to prove that democracy is the better choice.”
In electing Grace Padaca to receive the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes her empowering voters in the Philippines’ Isabela Province to reclaim their democratic right to elect leaders of their own choosing and to contribute as full partners in their own development.
The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends. Good afternoon.
You must have observed how the mere act of standing and sitting is difficult for me. Thankfully, people now pay much less attention to my physical handicap, as they focus more on the challenging things that I have hurdled and continue to face as leader of one of the largest provinces in the Philippines, the province of Isabela.
Four years after we Isabelinos freed ourselves from an oppressive political structure, we are happy that the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation once more brings to focus what we dared do and succeeded in doing-make democracy work, especially in the matter of using wisely our right to elect our leaders. If our victory in Isabela has to be truly meaningful, it needs to be replicated in other parts of the country, especially that in less than two years, we will all once more go to the polls and elect not only our local leaders but the new president of the Philippines.
Sen. Barack Obama of the United States talks about the audacity of hope but many of us, Asians, who have suffered so much more but have also been blessed to rise above our many challenges, need also to talk about the burden of the brave-the need to continue succeeding after raising the hopes of our people. Because if we ourselves fall short of expectations, especially if those who are shaken by our radical actions continue to work against our people’s interests, we will have further weakened the faith of our people in democracy.
Amazing victories are actually very fragile, and need to be protected. Please don’t just be happy for us. Please continue to be supportive and encouraging. Many times, I need the encouragement very badly. Every success is not just one person’s job. That’s why I share this award with all of you who have been cheering me on, helping me and helping Isabela.
Lastly, kindly allow me to use this chance to pay my dues to the One Great Being who made all of this possible. Way back in 2001, when very few outside Isabela had even heard about a Grace Padaca, I already won the elections for congressman, but somebody else was proclaimed. But? electoral victory was not the most important thing to me. I just longed for the chance to be able to say to as many people as I could reach? “To God be the glory!”? for all the many seemingly impossible things that were starting to happen then and were changing the situation in our province. I was deprived of that chance seven years ago, only to stand before all of you now, for no less than the Ramon Magsaysay Awards and proclaim not only the words “To God be the glory”? Because glory upon glory has happened. Now I can say to as many people as I can reach ? All glory and honor is yours, almighty Father!”
To Him who blesses us all, and to all of you, maraming, maraming salamat po.