Philippines' presidential candidate Grace Poe, a novice senator who wants to be president

Senator Grace Poe watches an audio visual presentation during Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada's Meeting de Avance in in Manila on May 5, 2016.
Senator Grace Poe watches an audio visual presentation during Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada's Meeting de Avance in in Manila on May 5, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA – A relative newcomer to the political scene, Senator Grace Poe, 47, has positioned herself as an alternative candidate to more traditional politicians like Mr Manuel Roxas and Mr Jejomar Binay.

Ms Poe says her comparative inexperience is not a disadvantage. "You don't have much baggage with you," she said of her career in public office.

Abandoned as a baby and raised by film stars

In 1968, Ms Poe, still in swaddling clothes, was abandoned in a central Philippine church when she was a baby and was adopted by Philippine movie stars, Fernando Poe Jr and Jesusa Sonora-Poe. 

The accepted narrative is that a nanny found her in the church. But with five other children to raise, the poor woman brought the child to a wealthy spinster, the daughter of a local sugar baron, who then took the child.

When this foster mother left for the United States, the six-year-old Grace was left under the care of Mr Fernando Poe Jr, a matinee idol, and his equally well-known celebrity wife.

 
 
 
 

The gossip that refuses to die, on the other hand, is that Grace is late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ love child with Mrs Poe’s younger sister, Ms Rosemarie Sonora, who was a teenage actress when she had a rumoured affair with the dictator. To avoid a scandal, Marcos, who was then very much married to Imelda, a svelte but tenacious former beauty queen, asked the childless Poe couple to adopt Grace.

Ms Poe has denied rumours of being an illegitimate child of Marcos. She has also dealt with the mudslinging with characteristic humour.

She often tells interviewers that Marcos’ son, fellow senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has taken to calling her “sis”, and she has been calling him “bro” whenever they meet.

Faced questions over eligibility to run

Ms Poe had faced questions over whether she met legal requirements to run for the country's highest office, such as being a natural-born citizen with 10 years of residency, but the Supreme Court ruled in her favour on March 8.

The court overturned a ruling released in December by the seven-man Commission on Elections. The commission had ruled that Ms Poe, having been abandoned as a baby and not knowing her real parents’ identity and nationality, is not a natural- born Filipino, a requirement for candidates running for public office.

The elections commission had also concluded that Ms Poe had not resided in the Philippines for longer than 10 years since she returned from the United States in 2003, based on an election form she filed when she ran for senator in 2013.

In five appearances before the Supreme Court, Ms Poe’s chief counsel Alexander Poblador argued that two international treaties guarantee Ms Poe’s right, even as a foundling, to run for president.

He said that in quitting her job in the US, relocating her children and buying a house in the Philippines in 2005, Ms Poe had been a Philippine resident for more than 10 years, even though she kept her dual citizenship until 2010.

Her father ran for president

Ms Poe moved to the United States during her university years and spent much of her adult life in Fairfax, Virginia, marrying an American of Philippine origin and working as a school teacher. She became a US citizen in 2001. In 2003, she returned to the Philippines to help in her father's bid to become president. He lost by a slim margin to Gloria Arroyo in the 2004 elections, and died a year later.

After her father died, Ms Poe quit her job in the US and relocated her children to the Philippines in 2005 for good to pursue allegations of widespread election fraud against Mrs Arroyo.

A year later, Ms Poe reacquired her Philippine citizenship, becoming a dual citizen. She renounced her American citizenship in 2010, after she was appointed head of the government censors board by President Benigno Aquino.

She ran for Senator in 2013

Ms Poe’s political career took off when she decided to run for senator under Mr Aquino’s party.

She had initially wanted to run under her married name Grace Llamanzares, but when her poll numbers barely registered a bump, she conceded to using her father’s last name.

With her late father still resonating with millions of voters, the “Poe” name became her ticket to political superstardom. She topped the senatorial race in 2013 with over 20 million votes.

Pro-poor campaign for presidential race

Ms Poe insists her pro-poor campaign in the presidential race is about inclusive growth and leaving no Filipino behind.

She has promised to build on retiring President Aquino's programmes of creating jobs and building infrastructure, which have helped propel one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.

Life story adapted for TV

Ms Poe is usually dressed in white, but her colourful life has been adapted as an episode in a top-rating drama series.

SOURCES: THE STRAITS TIMES ARCHIVES, REUTERS