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At the crossroads with Al and Manding

By Ermin Garcia Jr.

 

MAYOR Al Fernandez and I never really worked together in local politics. But there were two instances when I crossed his path in politics, two events that perhaps made him a fixture in Dagupan politics.

The first time was when I found myself volunteering to help him off and running for his first political contest –  as a councilor – in 1971.  I helped prepare his campaign collateral materials through my advertising agency operations at the time (with the help of Alex Villaflor and Nap Donato). We banked mainly on his being a Fernandez and being an energetic young man with a vision.

The few times that we talked about his campaign, I knew then I was looking at “Dagupan’s future today”.

That he won handily and topped the race didn’t really surprise anyone. In fact, the day he won big was the day people started people talking about an “Al Fernandez”, not just another Fernandez.

Councilor Al Fernandez became the city’s rising political rock star.  I was right.

*                *                *                *                *

A CHILD’S GAME. Then in 1992, I found myself again at the crossroads of his political career, and looking back, it turned out perhaps to be the major turning point in his political career.  And there were only three who knew about it. There was then former Vice Mayor Manding Fernandez, and then incumbent Vice Mayor Al Fernandez.  And myself.

Months before the election day, the political buzz then was VM Al was ready and set to run for mayor for the first time. But so was his cousin, then former VM Manding.

The Fernandez clan was divided but most deferred to both to decide who would be mayor. And that perhaps made it more difficult for the two to decide who should be.

The deadline for the filing of candidacy was near, and the issue still had not been settled. The city wondered how the two dedicated and honest politicians of the revered Fernandez clan would settle the issue once and for all.  Most agreed, the city would not have a Fernandez for a mayor if the two decided to run for mayor at the same time.

Two days before the deadline for the filing of candidacies. Nothing was settled. The city was agog on the debate and speculations on who should give in and make the supreme sacrifice.

Then Manding suddenly appeared at The PUNCH office late morning to tell me that he and Al had reached an agreement. I was happy that he was sharing the news with me. I thought he was giving me the chance to break the news that they had settled the issue among themselves.  So I asked: “Who will it be?”

Manding said, “We will know tonight, and this is why I am here… we agreed that you will help us settle this…act as the arbiter.” I was flabbergasted.  “Why me?” I laughed since I thought he was playing a bad joke on me.

“We agreed that you can be neutral and see things with us,” Manding said and to convince me, he picked up the phone to call Al. Soon as he had Al on the line, he handed me the phone: “He can tell you more,” he said, without a smile on his face. That’s when I realized he was serious.

Al confirmed that they, indeed, agreed on having me as an arbiter since they cannot settle the issue among themselves. “Can you help us decide this?”  I knew I had to say “Yes” if that meant it would help either one to be next city mayor.

Sensing my dilemma about the role assigned me, Manding assured me that they will both abide by a decision that will be reached that evening. He told me about an appointed place where we all three would meet. (It was someone’s house that I can’t recall today).

When I arrived, there were a few people with them, I imagined they were the two’s closest aides. After exchanging brief pleasantries, the three of us were ushered into a small room that appeared like a mahjong room.  We sat around the table. I didn’t know how to start it so they helped me and started talking about why they agreed to invite me.

Finally, I had to ask: “Are you really both ready to see this through whatever and however we end?” I told them of my reluctance to get into the process because both were very qualified to become mayors. They both had the experience and the vision. “Are you both really willing to accept a decision that one will have to step aside?” And both were quick to nod.

I started by asking both to share their individual thoughts why one deserves to be the candidate. It’s not like I didn’t know but I was keen on their body language.  Al started, Manding followed. Both had questions for each other, and both responded calmly. There was no shouting match. There was deep mutual respect for each one.

After 30 minutes or so, I felt like I was being tossed around by huge waves inside the room. Nobody was giving an inch. There were no terms or conditions being given. I seriously began to regret having accepted the invitation to be the arbiter. I didn’t know how to end the process. 

When both finally sounded exhausted, I suggested a dumb idea in similar frustration. “Will you agree to draw sticks?” Both looked at each other for a minute, disbelieving perhaps that after all that both went through, it would be decided by a child play.  Surprisingly. I didn’t hear a protest.  As if on cue, and after a few seconds, both heaved a sigh almost at the same time and gave me nervous smiles.

Manding said, “I’m OK with it, if Al is.” Al reacted: “Sige, tapusin na natin ito!

Suddenly, I thought I was smart after all. As I quickly looked around the room for a box of matches, Al slowly pulled out one from his pocket. I pulled out three matchsticks and I felt my fingers beginning to shake a bit. I still wasn’t sure if we were doing the right thing. 

Will they, indeed, bind themselves to the result of a “draw-stick” game? I asked myself what I would do if the loser decides not to agree and refuse to accept the result of this dumb luck game.

I turned around with the three sticks. I cut one stick short then carefully arranged them to make sure no one could see how the matchsticks were arranged.  “The one who picks the short stick wins,” was all I could say.

“Who’ll make the first pick?” I asked. Manding nodded to Al, and Al smiled briefly and looked at the three match heads on my fingers tightly covering the sticks. He picked a long one. His smile faded. I turned around to shuffle the sticks and faced Manding with excitement in his eyes. He took a deep breath and picked one. It was a long one, too. Both laughed…nervously. We were like kids playing a game.

I turned around to fix the matchsticks for the second round. This time, Al deferred to Manding to make the first pick the first crack. He pulled out one, a long one. Manding shook his head, I repeated the process before I faced Al. He picked one – the short one!

Al slumped back on his seat, heaved a sigh of relief.  His face was downcast like he was praying. Manding just smiled, and addressed Al: “Congratulations Mayor!”

Nobody stayed a minute longer. We stood up, shook hands and they left with their respective aides. I was left wondering whether we gave justice to the process.

We never talked about it again. There was no point.

On hindsight today, it was destiny for both, and I was merely asked to play a part.  From thereon, Manding left politics and Mayor Al went on to serve one of the longest terms and most number of reelection as mayor. 

They both have my deepest respect. And I pray everyone shares the same.

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