When the City of Olongapo is mentioned, the first things that would come to mind are two: the entertainment bars lining its streets and the name Gordon.
While the roots of existence of the former are well-traced, the existence and the reason why the latter became a household name is not much talked about.
Who really are the Gordons? How did they come into power? And how for several decades, did a single family dominate the entire political landscape of the city?
The Early Gordon
Though nobody from the local opposition could prove their claim that Olongapo strongman Richard Gordon, the considered head of Olongapo’s first family, is not a Filipino citizen, nobody could dispute that Dick is of an American descent.
The first Gordon to land on Philippine soil was Dick’s grandfather, John Jacob Gordon. John arrived as early as 1898 as part of Admiral George Dewey’s fleet during the Spanish-American War. It was reported that John had Russian Jewish parents, which probably explains his grandson Dick’s behavioral tendencies.
When the war ended, then US President Theodore Roosevelt declared Subic as an American military reservation.
John stayed behind, acquired vast farmlands in Subic, and opened his first bar and restaurant in the area. Outliving his first Filipina wife, he remarried another Filipina by the name of Veronica Tagle, a daughter of a revolutionary known to have served under Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.
From this second marriage he sired a son with a name similar to the famous Batman cartoon character, James Gordon.
The Rise of a Dynasty
While John Gordon’s other children from his first marriage decided to live comfortably in the states, son James had his stakes, both economically and politically, set on Subic.
He expanded his father’s businesses, and within a short span of time, was able to acquire a hotel, a movie theater, a radio station, a bakeshop, and more restaurants. He married Amelia Juico with whom he had five children, namely Richard (Dick), James Jr. (Bong), Veronica, Cecil and Barbara.
With Filipino blood in his veins, James joined the guerrilla and fought side by side with native Filipinos during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
When the war ended, he tried his luck in politics and won as councilor of Subic town. At that time, Olongapo was still a barrio of Subic.
In 1959, through constant lobbying and agitation among its citizens, the US government returned some of the reservation areas back to the Philippines and Olongapo became a separate municipality from Subic with James Gordon as its first mayor. Unfortunately, James died even before his term ended. He was assassinated by a lone gunman.
The eldest son Dick was then still too young to take over his father’s place. So to keep their name on politics while waiting for the heir apparent to come of age, his widow Amelia Gordon ran, won, and took the mayoral post.
Dick started his political journey to retake what was “his” in 1971, when he won a seat in the Constitutional Convention. At 26, and still in law school, he was the youngest member of the ConCon.
In 1980, he reclaimed his political inheritance when he won as Olongapo mayor. He then started an all-out campaign to form community organizations. Until now, his efforts continue to prove fruitful for his political interests. Almost all sectors, even the balut vendors down to the dyaryo-bote buyers, all had their share in their sectoral organizations.
After the EDSA revolt, the Aquino administration created a provisionary government and Dick was thrown out of office. That was just temporary however, because he quickly regained his post after winning the succeeding local election.
By then, the political empire of Gordons started to overshadow the entire city. He was then Olongapo mayor, his wife was a member of the House of Representative for Olongapo, and Dick’s younger brother James Jr., was a city councilor.
When the Philippines rejected the extension of the RP-US Bases Treaty, Dick Gordon was appointed chairman of the SBMA while serving as Olongapo mayor. But when pressure from the national government started to mount due to his dual position, he gave up the mayoral post.
In time, his congresswoman wife Kate became City Mayor, his brother James Jr. became the congressman, and nephew JC Delos Reyes (JC is the one running for president under the Kapatiran Party, however, he publicly reiterated his opposition to political dynasties and in fact filed graft cases with the Ombudsman against his own uncle James Jr. who’s now the current Olongapo mayor) became city councilor, and he was SBMA Chairman.
Command and Control
The strategic economic value of the former military base served as a tool to establish political power and subsequently, dominate the surrounding localities, most importantly, the city of Olongapo.
And whoever is in command of the now bustling Freeport practically has the control over the majority of voters who are either a Freeport worker or aspiring to be one. It was one of the reasons why Richard Gordon and the rest of his family lobbied for the establishment and leadership of the SBMA. It’s as simple an analogy as one plus one, to put the entire population within its radius under their command and control.
In fact, during his term at the SBMA, employment opportunities were confined to loyal political wards and supporters. Anybody who wished to oppose or even were contrary to their will simply could not have access to this God-given natural and employment resource.
A simple indicator of this eco-political blackmail during his term was the presentation of a job applicant his voter’s ID complete with precinct number as officially part of the requirements for employment.
When Estrada came to power he appointed Bataan Congressman Felicito Payumo to the SBMA post. The succeeding events that took place during the SBMA leadership conflict made the public realize the “turfdom” that was going on in Subic. (They had a minor glimpse during the APEC Summit, when we were almost killed by an organized mob)
Only then had the residents been given the chance to expose this dominance of the Gordon clan over the entire city. With it went the real situation inside and outside the Freeport, and the true political situation in Olongapo.
Not the First Time
The historic but nevertheless bloody incident that took place in the infamous hostile takeover on Building 229 shocked the entire country, but surprisingly, not the local residents.
According to residents, a similar situation happened right after the first EDSA. Dick Gordon, who was still serving as mayor of Olongapo, refused to step down and give way to the Aquino-appointed Ted Macapagal.
As a result, and pretty much what happened in SBMA, Gordon and his political supporters held vigils within the city hall premises. They stayed there for several days until violence erupted.
After the newly appointed officials successfully took over city government premises, they were surprised to see government properties destroyed. For example, the official vehicle intended for the mayor was filled with human feces much to the dismay of the new staff.
Nepotism had become a common practice. The Gordons have even set-up its own landmarks for all to see. Karilagan Street was renamed Gordon Avenue, Pag-Asa Public Market was renamed James L. Gordon Public Market, Olongapo General Hospital was renamed James L. Gordon Memorial Hospital, a barangay was named Gordon Heights, a bridge was named James L. Gordon Memorial Bridge and a lot more.
These landmarks serve as a stern reminder of who runs and owns the place. A reminder to all, both supporters and otherwise, that non-conformity can lead to an unimaginable risk.
Famous for their numerous slogans, Gordon has a not-so famous one: “Kung ayaw nyo sa patakaran ko, lumayas kayo ng Olongapo!” One can easily surmise who owns what and how much. The idea of Dock Gordon being President certainly makes me shiver.
With all the landmarks renamed, one wouldn’t be surprised if the city council next decides to rename the city after its own centennial rulers. Just as the place bowed in subservience to its ancient Spanish and American conquerors, it is practically destined to bow to the lords of the city.
And with the absence of genuine alternative candidates in the coming election, the dynasty can be sure to survive yet another century.