De Vera, Ph.D. is professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the BusinessWorld on July 6, 2009 at pages S1/4 and S1/5.

New Jersey – The celebration of Philippine Independence Day in all the major Filipino communities in North America provided ample opportunity for Philippine presidential and vice presidential candidates to “press the flesh” and introduce themselves to Filipino migrants and overseas workers through the annual parades, gala dinners, and regional/ethnic get-togethers.

As my wife Charito and I drove from Mississauga, Ontario to Bergenfield, New Jersey through the interstate highway system in our annual summer trek, I grabbed as many Filipino newspapers as I could, and talked with Filipino-Canadians and Filipino-Americans to check their political pulse and ask who they thought was leading the presidential race for 2010.

Amazingly, everyone I met had very strong opinions and many have in fact passed judgment about the current presidential and vice presidential aspirants.

The most visible and energetic candidate was definitely Senator Kiko Pangilinan who zigzagged through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Toronto, Houston, and Boston, meeting fraternity brods and migrant Pinoys while accompanying Sharon Cuneta in her series of concerts in these key American and Canadian cities. His Team Kiko led by Jojo Digao  also covered the New Jersey and New York states. . A visibly sleep-deprived Jojo told me over a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Toronto that Pangilinan was even able to fly back to the Philippines to attend the last days of the Senate session during this whole travel episode. Surprisingly, he missed the Independence Day Celebration Ball in Toronto organized by the two biggest Filipino-Canadian groups – Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre of Mississauga and the Philippine Independence Day Council of Toronto.

While Pangilinan was the most-traveled, it was Senator Manny Villar who got the best press coverage in the New York-New Jersey Filipino newspapers. The Filipino Times & Asian Review in New Jersey had “Destined to Lead: Manny Villar” as its banner story in its June 6-13, 2009 issue. It also extensively projected his participation in the June 7 Independence Day Parade attended by many Filipinos in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area in its June 13-20 edition. The Asian Journal  had Villar in its cover, in an article titled “Sen. Villar Ready for 2010 Campaign, Elections” and described him as a “self-made real estate mogul who rose from the slums of Tondo” to become “The Brown Taipan.” Both newspapers also gave broad coverage to Villar’s gracing the Manaog Feast Day event in New York and his interaction with the Filipino community leaders in the area.

Vice-President Noli de Castro got press coverage for marching with Villar, Ambassador Hilario Davide, and various Filipino groups at the Independence Day Parade in New York. However his “No Way” response to the media when asked if he would slide to the vice presidency during a cocktail reception organized by the Philippine Consulate and his statement that “I am not campaigning. I am not a candidate yet” (therefore no position on issues) may have limited his media exposure as he was not prominently featured in any of the opinion columns in the tri-state area.

News stories on four other presidential hopefuls appeared in the local papers. Senator Ping Lacson’s decision to quit the 2010 race and the arrival of Mancao in the country (Newstar Philippines), Bayani Fernando’s decision to seek the presidency (Newstar Philippines), Gilbert Teodoro’s decision to join LAKAS-KAMPI- CMD (Filipino Times), and Gloria Arroyo’s political hacks calling Mar Roxas “Boy Bawang” (Newstar Philippines). Strangely, there was no newspaper pick-up on Senator Chiz Escudero.

My conversations with many Fil-Canadians and Fil-Americans in the East Coast (framed perhaps not just by local papers but by The Filipino Channel, GMA Pinoy TV and community tsismis) gave me a long list of peculiar perceptions and views about the presidential hopefuls.

There seems to be a widespread belief that while qualified and eloquent, Chiz Escudero is too young to become president and should wait for his time.

While everyone I talked to believed that he was very qualified, many were not titillated, some even said it was awfully corny for the fifty-something Mar Roxas to be filming and broadcasting every step of his engagement plans in contrast to young movie stars Judy Ann Santos and Ryan Agoncillo, who tried their best to keep their marriage ceremony a very private affair.

Bayani Fernando had many fans for his decisive guts to clear the streets of vendors, but his fans find him too stiff and ineffective when explaining himself in the media.

The most critical comments were directed at Noli de Castro not for his lack of competence and performance but for his decision to go in the ring when Manny Pacquiao knocked out Ricky Hatton at the hugely televised mega fight. Everyone I spoke to at the cook-out cum-political press conference hosted by an enthusiastic group of Kapampangans in New Jersey believed that de Castro’s actions demeaned the office of the Vice-President, and worse, disgraced Filipino leaders before the world stage.

Consistent with newspaper projections, many of the Filipino migrants I met had the kindest words for Manny Villar. Many Pinoys can relate to him because they say that his story is their story – perseverance, thrift and hard work combined to bring oneself up the social ladder and enjoy the ultimate North American dream. Perhaps smarting from the failed Estrada presidency, the people I talked to want Villar to answer two questions – Who are his advisers and inner circle? And what will he do with Gloria Arroyo when he becomes president?
Fil-Americans may be able to influence public opinion in the US communities and even in the Philippines. But ultimately the Pinoys at home will be the most decisive in electing the next Philippine president.