The first time I saw him was when he dislodged himself from his red 1996 Pajero with the imposing façade of the Manila Hotel as backdrop. It was a chance encounter as I was in the company of the gubernatorial hopeful Robert Racelis whom I was supposed to meet at the Manila City hall. We were all then local warriors looking for a shogun. We thought Fred Lim would give us leadership direction. Lim’s lawyer, Jess Santos, however gave us a monologue about how great he was himself instead.
It was an election season in one balmy day of February, 1998.
The man was standing with his back against me talking on his outsized flat-iron like cell phone. He was wearing his signature red long sleeves tucked in an old reliable Levi’s trousers tightened by what looked like worn out leather belt which saw better times yet its natural patina remains. I waited until he signed off but I noticed the repetitious stress on something I overheard he’d said ten minutes before.
When he finally turned around when a smoke-belcher spewed black fumes at his direction, he noticed my presence. While still at it, he extended his hand and offered me his famous limp handshake. Filipinos don’t have the firm handshake of the Westerners or they’re taken as arrogant or overbearing. Finally, he handed his talk tool to his factotum and greeted me like a long lost friend. He said that I should not bother in “his” first district because a year ago he had already put in place a formidable political machine down to the last sitio. “Don’t worry in Pollilio because I have a 4000 strong network and that could at least be your vote there at the minimum,” he assured me.
It surprised me because that was the first time I met Raffy Nantes. He gave away a positive disposition that proved to be a goodwill investment. I became an instant Nantes convert.
As he spoke, he fixed his hair in cadence using his fingers and instinctively arranged the length of his folded maroon long sleeves. His hair style has the hint of Erap’s, very 70s. Another surprise was his barber’s comb tucked behind his wallet. His gaze was everywhere and he was not generous in the eye contact enterprise.
His small talk was rambling but from what I was hearing from this stranger was his firm resolve to be congressman of the first district of Quezon. He was a lone ranger with several Tontos in tow. He counted as wise men Oca Santos of Alabat and Bobby Tanada of Makati.
When he broke the news of his first political foray, he used the lowly lemon grass as his mantra for his people’s salvation. “Magtanim po tayo ng Salay at uunlad ang pamayanan.” He talked about farm cooperatives and farm reforms. By all account, the fragrant Tanglad was just a metaphor of his political preamble. It can be medicinal and can spice up a dish. The grass variety is as perennial like his idealism and aromatic like his presence. The man was freshly scented without fail and he was partial to Issey Miyake.
In May, 1998, he bested seven other bets including a former governor, a bar topnotcher, a CPA-lawyer, and a number of others who thought they had the district under their spell. Nantes came from behind, a virtual political unknown.
Nantes’ humble beginnings in Quezon is legend. He was an illegitimate son of a provincial bureaucrat. He learnt the rudiments of Calculus with the touch of the incalculable human nature in the port of Pollilio selling fish and cooked foods. Left to his own devices, he struggled himself thru college and earned a degree in electrical engineering. He said he never took notes and contented himself in memorizing the lectures of his professors. He never reviewed at all in all his exams and turned up exempted garnering outstanding grades but not enough to be an honor student. He admitted glancing at his better-prepared classmates’ test papers without being caught. He never reviewed in taking the board examinations for electrical engineers and passed with flying colors. When he became governor, he was a majority owner of his alma mater, the National University.
As a college fratman , he had his share of violent encounters with rival groups. Abdominal scars were testament to that. One Alabat resident recounted how he saved a bloodied Nantes from certain harm when he allowed the latter to seek refuge in their Sulucan apartment away from his attackers in hot pursuit. He was brought to the hospital for treatment. The doctors told him that had he not been taken for medical attention promptly he could have died from shock and blood loss. In one foray in Quezon, Quezon in 2007 while he was on stage and was introduced as the next provincial governor, he asked the crowd to invite his savior. Right after his inauguration, his rescuer was given an item in the Office of the Governor.
At first he was sold by his handlers as a successful Manila trader. That was the truth because he had a booming industrial battery business in Valenzuela and other parts of Metro-Manila. His relative obscurity was exploited by the spin meisters. His source of wealth was fodder to rumor mongers. In his initial plunge in politics, his rivals began linking his affluence to illegal drugs.
Airlines and communications telephone companies count as his loyal customers. His bottom-line annually is in eight digits. His favorite anecdote was his lowly beginning as an inventor. He said he started out as a car battery assembler by buying used battery cases perfected and designed a unique alternating current-direct current version of it. From there, he introduced novel specs of industrial batteries which his clientele found cost effective and durable and much superior than imported ones. Soon enough, the man had a business reputation, the owner of the thriving Neutron Corporation.
Once I caught him in a conference with his company staff on the ground floor of Nuetron building, a four-storey affair housing his office and residence in New Manila, explaining a mathematical diagram. He winked at me and remarked, “technical yan!”
With millions to spare, he sought out Santos and Tanada and asked a piece of their minds. His consulting the venerable old men was just another political design meant to get their support. Santos has a following in the island-towns and Tanada has his organizational blueprint in his district that overlaps in the central towns of Mauban-Tayabas, parts of the Nantes district. The old man Santos coined the acronym, Reporma sa Nayon, a play on Raffy Nantes initials first launched by Quezon City’s Sonny Belmonte’s Serbisyong Bayan. (From what Belmonte started, every local government unit’s top honcho has his initials transformed into motherhood missives).
The sitting governor Willie Enverga saw Nantes as a threat to their dynasty. In Enverga’s calculation, Nantes the congressman and a businessman at that will surely cast a moist eye on the governorship. Enverga was only in his first term of office then.
Early on, Enverga and his paid hacks tried to push Nantes in a box by muddling credits to infrastructures brought by the workaholic Nantes. The Tayabas-Mauban circumferential road was completed through the relentless hard work of the rising political star. Enverga resented the focus of Nantes on his job. In just six years, Nantes concreted and canalized the 40-km road between Tayabas and Mauban. He connected Pagbilao to Tayabas compounding easy access to tourism haven Lucban. The Enverga family record of 35 years of doing nothing paled behind Nantes accomplishments. Compared with Nantes, Enverga is a sloth who relied on the magic of the name of his father whom he despised for abandoning his mother and constructed his paramour’s house a stone’s throw away from their ancestral house at the University Site. Nantes on the other hand prided himself with managerial hands-on compared with Enverga who hated to beg for projects. Snooping for projects is beyond Enverga, he left it to his reliable bagman who has his own mark up on his principal’s SOPs.
In 2001, Nantes had no visible opponents. He wracked up a record as the congressman who delivered. Mayor Silang returned to Tayabas to retrieve his former post from Mayor Sumilang. Enverga would have none of it. As congressman, Enverga was constantly opposed came election time and he labored in the campaign that almost killed him in Pagbilao. He could not countenance an unopposed Nantes. The Enverga machine pitted Nantes against the GMA appointed Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera. Devanadera’s campaign manager, Manny Portes, Enverga’s erstwhile Chief-of-Staff, was imposed by Enverga on Agnes. Enverga unleashed his dirty tricks Dobermans against Nantes. The seeds of illegal drugs connection were planted by Enverga himself. Nantes was now seriously being linked with illegal drugs. Agnes thought that she still had the goods in the first district when she routed Enverga in their run for the governorship where she bested Enverga even in the latter’s hometown of Mauban. In the May, 2001 congressional elections however Agnes was crushed convincingly by Nantes. Nantes by then held the first district by the palm of his hands.
In the early 2002 there appeared a concerted effort to again connect Nantes to drug trafficking. With the arrest of Panukulan Mayor Mitra in Infanta as a drug courier, Enverga was in the forefront having even attended the press conference in Camp Crame.
The message was clear, they are zeroing in on the Big Boss of Mitra. Mitra from where Enverga sat did not act on his lonesome. Somebody was financing Mitra, Enverga wanted to say. In public, Enverga was confirming that they were right after all in the May, 2001 elections. Nantes felt alluded to and for the first time delivered his first privilege speech before Congress and denounced the cabal that tried to pin him down as the top honcho of drug trade in Quezon. Nantes, for reasons known only to him and despite congressional immunity, did not name Enverga and his cohorts.
Before his maiden speech, I visited Nantes in Congress. I brought with me the corruption goods against his detractors. I said that I was ready to file them before the Ombudsman having received from concerned sources in Quezon Province documentary smoking guns complete with COA reports of non-bidding and payments prior to delivery. But he was non-committal. He looked emaciated when we met at the congressional lounge. He said he was worried about his health that he consulted the best doctors. Heaving a sigh of relief, he said he was recuperating from mere vertigo. Nantes it appears was averse to filing cases in his behalf. He did not believe in redress from the Courts. Courts to him are part of a network that can be accessed. As a businessman, litigations are a waste of time, an essential input in his business. Nantes would rather be doing business rather than tied up in briefings with some lawyers. Nonetheless I went ahead in filing anti-graft cases against the abusive provincial officials among which were the over-priced convention center, public school buildings, and the provincial medical center. These anti-graft cases remain pending to date thanks to the conscientiousness of the Office of the Ombudsman.
In 2004, I saw a different Nantes. He was robust and had bounce in his steps. Again nobody in the political horizon was ready to face him. My friend Claro Talaga was agonizing whether to file his candidacy papers on the eve of the deadline. Claro said he got a call from Enverga to go ahead and see him promptly at the University Site, his initial fund was ready for the picking. After filing, Claro gathered his media friends in an impromptu press conference and spent nearly fifty thousand. The next morning, anxious that at least a million awaited him, he was at the Enverga kitchen at seven in the morning. He waited for an hour as the governor was still asleep. He got the surprise of his life when his patron finally appeared in pajamas and handed him fifty thousand just enough to reimburse him for his expenses the night before. That was the first and last meeting of Claro with his tightwad boss. Not too long from there, Claro withdrew from the race.
After his oath taking in his last term as congressman, I got a call from him to proceed to Quezon, Quezon as he was a guest of Saysay Oliveros in one August night of 2005. He brought with him a singing band that energized the barangay folks. Everybody spoke and Nantes was being ribbed as a Lito Lapid look alike and of course the next governor. Ironically the one who endorsed him that night and was all praises to him was the sitting fourth district congressman, Erin Tanada. After he spoke I sidled up to him for the obligatory tete-a-tete because in a jiffy he would rise up as it was already past midnight and shall head up to the port where a boat was waiting ready to bring him to Gumaca or Atimonan. He said that I should be ready anytime as he was going to tap me as part of his campaign group. He said he could sense the clamor of the people for a change of leadership especially from the barangay or grassroots leadership. All he was looking forward to was mobility and visibility. I heard him say that he needed a helicopter.
He rose up when Ador Culing called him up the stage. Culing was prepping up the crowd, would they want a song from their guest? The crowd was in unison. Nantes obliged. He sang Larry Kusik’s Speak Softly Love, the theme song of the movie The Godfather.
Nantes at first was tentative with Culing at the background guiding him with the tempo. When he got the rhythm, he was on his own.