Philippine Daily Inquirer
112-year political journey of the Ortegas of La Union
AT NOON, the courtyard of the big house on Rizal Street in La Union’s capital of San Fernando comes to life. The long table, laden with a fare of meat and fish, sits beneath decades-old fruit trees.
It is lunchtime for the Ortegas, the family that has dominated La Union politics since the early 1900s. In one such occasion last month, the clan leader, Rep. Victor Ortega, took the seat at the head of the table. To his left was his wife, Mary Jane, the former mayor of San Fernando City.
Present, too, were Board Member Jose “Pepe” Ortega, Councilor Ramon “Monet” Ortega, the chair of the Association of Barangay Captains in the city, and other family members and staff of Victor’s congressional office.
There was no talk about politics—just much ribbing, laughing and even dancing.
“Everyone is invited to lunch here, but not at dinner because the kitchen is closed as we would not know where we would be then,” said Victor, the oldest of 15 children of Francisco Ortega, who represented the second district of La Union for 24 years.
The Ortegas have been serving in various elective posts in La Union for 112 years now. Victor, however, does not want the family to be labeled a political dynasty.
“What I understand about dynasty is that the position is simply handed down. We did not inherit the position, we inherited only the desire to serve,” he said.
The Ortegas’ journey in La Union politics started in 1901, when the American colonial government appointed Don Joaquin Ortega, Victor’s grandfather, as the province’s first governor. Joaquin served until 1904.
But the family, Victor said, has not always held the top elective post in the province.
After Joaquin, it took 87 years before another Ortega took over the governor’s seat, with the election of his son, also named Joaquin (called Uncle Titing), in 1988. Titing lost six electoral contests before finally winning as representative in 1969.
The other son, Francisco, had a relatively smooth sailing in politics, although there were years when he was out of the game. Taken together, he served 24 years as representative until he died in 1967 while serving as commissioner of the Commission on Elections.
It is Francisco’s family that continued the Ortegas’ political journey.
Francisco has 15 children, with all of the eight boys now in public service. None of the seven girls joined politics, and it was only Mary Jane (Victor’s wife) who was elected thrice as mayor of San Fernando.
Aside from Victor, the other brothers are Manuel (known as Manoling, former San Fernando City mayor and representative of the second district from 1998 to 2007), who is gunning for his last term as governor; Pablo, who is running for his last term as mayor of San Fernando; Jose (Pepe), running for San Fernando vice mayor; and Francisco Jr. (Kit), for provincial board member.
Another brother, former Baguio police chief Roberto “Bobby” Ortega, is running for councilor in Baguio City. His son, Robert, is running for councilor of Manila, while his daughter, Michelle, is running for mayor of Caba town in La Union.
Manuel’s three children are also in politics: Francisco is the second nominee of the partylist group Abono, Alfredo is running for councilor of San Fernando, and Emmanuel Victor is ABC president of the province.
Pablo’s son, Francisco Paolo V, is eyeing a
‘We did not inherit the position, we only inherited the desire to serve’
council seat in San Fernando.
Ramon’s son, Ramon Guio, is Sangguniang Kabataan chair of San Fernando. He is the youngest among the Ortega politicians. Victor’s entry into politics led the way for his brothers in politics. But it was not easy as the path was full of stumbling blocks, he said.
Ortega vs Ortega
When their father Francisco died in 1967, Victor was all set to run for representative in the 1969 elections after his uncle, Titing, told him he was not running.
“We resigned as teachers from the University of the East, sold our house in Manila, closed his law office there and the gasoline station, packed our bags and went back to La Union,” said Victor’s wife, Mary Jane.
But Titing changed his mind and said he was running with the backing of then President Ferdinand Marcos, who was his classmate at the University of the Philippines’ College of Law.
Victor lost by 3,000 votes in his first attempt in electoral politics to his Uncle Titing.
“Is that dynasty? That was Ortega running against an Ortega,” Mary Jane said.
The same scenario happened in the 1978 Batasang Pambansa elections, with Marcos ordering him again to withdraw from the race in favor of his uncle.
Even Manuel had to suffer as he was asked to withdraw from the San Fernando mayoral race in 1980 because a relative of then Tourism Secretary Jose Aspiras, a close ally of Marcos, wanted to run.
Justo Orros, then a judge in Pangasinan, was asked to run as a compromise candidate. Orros, a cousin of the Ortegas, would be elected La Union governor in 1992.
“Marcos was a demigod then in Ilocandia. His word was law and if he did not support you, you would lose,” Victor said.
In 1987, with Marcos out of the country, Victor finally put his foot down and talked to his Uncle Titing about his plan to run.
“I told him that if we will both run, we will lose to Magnolia Antonino, who beat him in the 1965 elections. He said we will talk to his leaders, but I talked to them first. They may like Uncle Titing but they like me better than Antonino,” Victor said.
Victor’s dream to become a legislator came true.
“As you can see, I waited for 22 years to become congressman. It was hard fight all the way that a man made of less sterner stuff would have crumbled. Is that a dynasty?” he said.
The following year was the election for local offices and Titing was elected governor of the province.
“La Union had an Ortega as a governor 87 years after Don Joaquin was appointed governor in 1901. Is that a dynasty? My point here is hindi minana (we did not inherit the position). My father finished his term in Congress in 1965, I reached Congress in 1987,” he said.
Victor said the older Ortegas had to go through a needle’s eye before achieving the positions they are occupying now. He started as a barangay captain before he became San Fernando mayor.
But Victor conceded that the road was easier for his younger brothers and their children.
“But no family member is forced into running for an elective office. It is all voluntary. After my father died, no one was involved in politics. We were never encouraged nor discouraged. His attitude is what we followed with our children. If they want to enter politics, then we let them and support them,” he said.
As the acknowledged leader of the Ortega clan now, how does Victor make sure that each of them does not stray from the kind of public service that their father, Francisco, had shown?
“I have only one warning to my brothers and my nephews and nieces. The Ortegas fear no one, but I told them that their grandfather would haunt them if they failed in public service. That was his legacy— good public service,” he said.