This piece is a slightly shortened version of the remarks of Dina Abad’s husband, Butch Abad on the occasion of the Ateneo School of Government’s launching of the Dina Abad Emerging Leaders Fellowship on Jan. 18, 2020.
We gather with a purpose that is close to our hearts: the launching of the Dina Abad Emerging Leaders Fellowship program, and our celebration of her enduring legacy. What a fitting present for her birthday, which is eight days from today.
I am deeply grateful to the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) — not only for their generosity in naming the fellowship program after Dina, but also for appointing Dina as the school’s very first dean. For those familiar with the ASoG’s provenance, Dina was in fact one of its founders. The idea to establish the school first came to her during her Mason Fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1995.
Since its inception, the ASoG became her academic home. Here, she embraced the strength of her identity as a public servant and academician. This identity — principled, ambitious, and feisty — and we can all agree that she was feisty! — would later govern her engagement in elective politics.
And so today is a homecoming for Dina, because you were very much her second family — despite of, or even because some of you, became frenemies at some point. It takes a lot of trust between people to disagree respectfully and without fear. Because of all this, you were her treasured kin in political reform and public service.
Dina was an academic by profession. She loved teaching. She enjoyed mentoring students and upstarts in development work. While she was a serious student of history and politics, the idea of entering the arena of elective politics was something she did not relish. It was not out of her distaste for the wheeling-and-dealing that characterize our politics. She was pragmatic enough to understand the need for that and could accept it — up to a point. It was also not because of the notoriety of abuse of power and corruption that generally taint our politicians. She was confident that she could deal with those very negative — and sometimes unfair — impressions about politics and politicians in this country.
So when the challenge was put before her to run for Congress in 2004, she was at best ambivalent: excited, at the prospect of entering a new realm of engagement; but apprehensive, that she may not have what Dr. Alran Bengzon calls the “intestinal fortitude” to survive it. Apart from being a reluctant neophyte, she was a Kapampangan, not an Ivatan, and she hardly spoke the language. But with her community organizing and people skills and experience and the unrelenting hard work, Dina was unmatched in the campaign trail. She won her first electoral battle comfortably.
No sooner had she warmed her seat in the House when the “Hello, Garci!” scandal exploded in the political scene, when I and other Cabinet members resigned to protest electoral fraud and its subsequent cover-up. The crisis triggered impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives and Dina, even the neophyte that she was, found herself one of its prime movers.
It was to be Dina’s first test as a politician. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was hardly a stranger to Dina. They were both from Lubao, Pampanga, and their families, including ours, were close to each other. Macapagal-Arroyo was in fact Dina’s professor in Maryknoll.
In similar circumstances, many people would understandably submit to these personal affinities. Kilala ko siya, kaibigan ko sila. May naitulong ’yan sa amin. (I know her, she is a friend. She has helped us.) Most of us would have kept our distance, or taken a neutral position, a safe and understandable option in our political culture. An even more politically pragmatic move was to have sided with the President, as many of Dina’s colleagues did despite damning proof of cheating and fraud.
And yet, despite her personal ties to Arroyo, Dina dared to be at the forefront of the impeachment process. In the minds of her veteran and more pragmatic colleagues in the House, it might have been an ill-advised position for a first-time legislator representing a vulnerable province to take. They might have thought her to be naïve or, worse, a fool for endangering her budding political career. But unlike most of them, Dina rejected the political reflex of self-preservation at the expense of her standing by what is right. While she was mindful of the political risks, speaking truth to power, to exact accountability was, for her, the right thing to do.
When the impeachment bid failed, the consequences of Dina’s principled stand began to bear on her. The Congressional allocation for her development priorities in Batanes was discontinued, including critical regular infrastructure projects. In the last two years of her three-year term, the province suffered a long dry spell in terms of national government subsidies for development, a severe punishment for a small and poor province. With little to show in her first term as Representative, Dina’s leaders were expectedly concerned about how this would impact on her chances of getting re-elected. Her opponents and detractors were certain to pounce on her for prioritizing her national advocacies over her constituency concerns.
Regardless, it was expected that Dina would run for a second term. But Dina was clear-eyed about what Batanes needed: national government support that would deliver basic social services and infrastructure development to spur growth and development in the province. As the province had experienced in 2005 and 2006, Dina was certain that that kind of support was once again going to be denied the province by the Arroyo administration should she get re-elected. After much deliberation and consultations with family and political leaders, Dina made the difficult, if not the politically inconceivable, decision not to run for re-election in 2007. She felt strongly that no matter how deeply and strongly she embraced her principles, the interest of the province and her constituents was paramount. It was too much of a price the Ivatans had to pay. Conversely, giving up a chance at staying in power in favor of being at peace with her conscience was, while a difficult choice, a no-brainer for Dina.
Out of office for the next three years, Dina was warmly welcomed back in ASoG, while keeping her development initiatives in Batanes.
As the Arroyo administration was winding down, Dina thought that 2010 was a good time to return to Congress. But unlike in 2004, it was going to be an uphill climb: she was up against a moneyed incumbent who did not play by the rules, amply supported by an administration that was determined to frustrate her. But grit, unrelenting hard work and her ability to attract young leaders, mostly women, into her campaign, enabled her to prevail — even if by just 35 votes. A win is a win, she would remind critics.
With the election of President Noynoy Aquino, a close friend and partymate, the next three years — 2010-2013 — was to be the complete opposite of her first three years as Representative: investments in social services, infrastructure, heritage and environmental conservation, and eco-tourism development were unprecedented. The developments during that period are generally credited for laying the foundation for the emergence of Batanes as among the top tourism destinations in the country today.
It was also during this period that Dina felt most fulfilled as a national policymaker. Apart from being able to more than fulfill his obligations to her constituents in terms of local legislation and constituency services, her advocacies for transparency and accountability in governance, meaningful devolution, engagement with the citizenry and key policy reforms such as sin tax reform and reproductive health legislation, found robust appreciation and support from the President and his Cabinet, his partymates and in Congress.
As her auspicious second term was coming to an end, the general expectation in Batanes was that her re-election was a foregone conclusion. With support from a sitting President in a midterm election, it was seen to be a “walk in the park” for her.
It should have been — except for a crisis in our local party chapter and how she insisted it should be handled. The mayorship of the capital town, Basco, had opened up, and a number of party mates had expressed interest. Instead of dictating her choice, which would have simplified the process and which would have been generally accepted, Dina set in motion an inclusive process so that consensus could be achieved. That process came to pass and a common candidate was selected.
Everything should have been smooth sailing afterwards. However, the incumbent governor — a politically powerful, long-time ally — repeatedly refused to accept the result of the process and insisted on his stepson, who incidentally was also our nephew and a popular local figure. When the governor refused to stand down and no compromise seemed possible despite all efforts being expended, Dina did the unimaginable: She gave the governor an ultimatum before eventually asking the governor to disassociate himself from the party. It was to be another wrenching process. But to Dina, the choice was clear: fostering respect for party processes and party discipline or risking insubordination in the ranks and weakening the organization. While I cautioned Dina about taking such a drastic step and its consequences, especially for her re-election prospects, I saw the wisdom in her decision; it was her brand of leadership.
True enough. What was expected to be an easy win, again turned into a tough, problematic contest. But Dina once again prevailed — but only by a precarious margin of 350 votes.
For Dina, the risk was worth taking as she managed to prove once again a point: It is possible to do good politics and still prevail in the end.
After her victory in the 2013 elections, Dina was more convinced that it was possible to immerse oneself in the rough-and-tumble world of Philippine politics without having to abandon one’s conviction and reform aspirations. For sure, it was fraught with risks and uncertainties. But for Dina, it was a small price to pay to be consistent with her principles and be at peace with herself.
Her disposition did gain for her notoriety as the Liberal Party’s informal whip in the House, keeping party mates in check and shepherding them when they stepped out of line. President Noynoy loved to tease that her name should not be Henedina, but should have been “HinDina Abad” — because she did not indulge tomfoolery among her partymates in the House. She was very vocal and upfront when she disagreed with her party mates — even with the President himself.
In the length of time she was legislator, Dina found herself in the midst of many political skirmishes and wheeling-and-dealing. But she chose to keep a healthy sense of detachment from all of that. She kept one foot in the halls of Congress, and another firmly planted in her reform advocacies and academic pursuits.
Altogether, Dina’s courage and principled decision-making became her compass towards political reform and true service to her constituents. Thus, she did not consider it unthinkable to stand up for what was right, even if that meant taking serious risks or relinquishing office.
She ended her engagement in elective politics satisfied that, despite all the temptations that attended wielding political power — and despite the difficult and delicate tension inherent to weaving in and out of politics — she kept her moral and spiritual core intact. As she managed this private struggle, some peers and colleagues must have thought she was being stubborn or difficult. In truth, she was simply manifesting her lifelong effort to preserve her wholeness in the face of difficulties and challenges she had to confront as an advocate of genuine reforms.
Most people believe that no one can be both an accomplished politician and a genuine reformist. Dina’s character and career disproved this with admirable aplomb. Even then, it was not easy work. For ultimately, it took a toll on her physical wellbeing. She managed to endure her condition, and she kept it to herself until it began to weaken and debilitate her.
In paving the singular path of her political career, she drew guiding light from the ideas and values that was inculcated to her during her student volunteer work days in Maryknoll among fisherfolks in Baras, Rizal and nurtured and instilled into her as a trade unionist, an agrarian reform advocate, an anti-martial law activist, a progressive legislator, and upheld and given voice by the Ateneo School of Government.
Dina understood the limitless potency of ideas to spur political and social reform. And this is why the ASoG was so dear to her. In Dina’s view, the ASoG was a cradle of powerful ideas from which genuine change could emerge. She envisioned this institution as a refuge for politicians and academics — a safe harbor for those who yearn to be better leaders for the sake of nation-building.
It is our hope that through the Dina Abad Emerging Leaders Fellowship, we can create fertile ground for the genesis of ideas and action, carve out new space for innovating political reform, and provide a rich opportunity for future leaders in Philippine governance and civic action. Such a purpose cleaves so well to Dina’s lasting legacy: courageous, progressive, compassionate and inclusive leadership that makes nation-building possible.