October 25, 2006 - Most pundits consider Manny Alvarez a shoo-in to retain his District 25 seat in the house.
He is one of four candidates seeking two seats.
The Democrat has campaigned the way he legislates - quietly but assuredly. The pistachio farmer never gets too excited. At a recent debate in Marana, the candidate sat stoic while listening to his opponents. He looked as if he knew something no one else did.
He spoke fewer words than any candidate in the debate, fiddling with a pen while almost sheepishly stating his stances on certain issues. The ceiling lights reflected off his slick-backed hair - a mix of shiny black and gray strands - as he peered down through his glasses and occasionally jotted down a thought.
Pundits in Southern Arizona have described the District 25 representative as "solid" and a "stalwart." Alvarez seems to glide through the campaign, secretly certain that voters will send him back to Phoenix for a third term.
"I intend to stay in another four years," he said recently. "Or maybe another 10 years."
In his first run for representative in 2002, Alvarez earned 28 percent of the votes and knocked off his opponents easily. In 2004, he won again, getting 27 percent of the votes.
Alvarez owns 160 acres in Elfrida, where he manages his pistachio orchard and used to raise cattle. A native of El Paso, he has lived in Arizona for almost 50 years.
He retired in 2001 from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, where he worked for 31 years. He likes to joke that his retirement didn't last long.
All of the candidates running for both house and senate in District 25 have Web sites, except Alvarez.
"He's not the most high-tech guy," Pima County Democratic Party District 25 Chair Jeff Lawrence joked, adding that Alvarez does know his way around the Legislature.
When asked about the state's ballooning prison budget and crowded prisons, Alvarez offered his solution to save some space and money.
Ankle bracelets, he said. "Of course, it would mean more probation officers, but it would be cheaper to put somebody on ankle bracelets. Let them go out and keep working, pay their taxes, pay their fines instead of incarcerating them."
Alvarez thinks the state needs someone with the cultural experience necessary to relate to people in the far-reaching district. As a rancher and bilingual Mexican-American, he can relate to both the rural population and those along the border, Alvarez said.
The candidate thinks no clear-cut solution exists for illegal immigration.
"I believe the government has gone too long without doing anything about immigration," the great-grandfather said. "It is so bad now that it is impossible to just come up with a bill and take care of the situation. I don't think it's going to happen. We got a long, long ways to go on that."
Alvarez can harness his anger with ease. For instance, he manages to remain soft-spoken when railing against a small group of Republicans who he thought passed bills this past legislative session for no reason other than to embarrass Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. It disgusted him and others alike, he said.
"Being in the House and seeing those bills at the beginning that were good bills and then all of a sudden it was turned around and really made into ugly bills. I'm glad she vetoed a lot of those bills, because when they came back, it was nothing but garbage."
Republicans called some of the governor's vetoes politically motivated. Napolitano this past session did veto a record number of bills, including a bill that would have made English the state's official language and certain provisions related to Proposition 200, which would prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, such as healthcare and financial aid.
Alvarez agreed with the vetoes.
"It takes a lot to learn what (immigrants') needs are," he said.
Some pundits accuse Alvarez of voting the Democratic Party line to a fault, coming up on the losing end one too many times. Alvarez also has trouble communicating his opinions, some have said.
"Despite Manny not being the best campaigner, he's confident because he knows the district has a fairly large contingent of Latino voters," Lawrence said.
Alvarez in his four years in the Legislature has shown a great deal of improvement, understanding more about policies and the legislative process with each session, Lawrence added.
"He was pretty shaky his first year, but it's difficult for any Democrat in that Legislature. But he's gotten some bills passed and has his footing now."
Alvarez helped pass three bills in four years, the most important being a bill that reduced insurance costs for rural hospitals. He also sponsored a bill to combat identification theft. District 25 Democrat Sen. Marsha Arzberger and Republic Rep. Jennifer Burns put their names to the bill, too.
"I think I have proven myself in the last four years, as far as what I can do," Alvarez said.
He promised to do more if elected to raise teacher salaries and shrink classroom sizes, a strategy with proven results, he said.
"The worse thing to do is to cut teachers' pay," Alvarez said. "We cannot keep teachers at the salary that we pay now."
Higher teacher salaries mean less turnover, particularly in rural school districts, where more and more teachers leave their jobs after a few years, the representative said.
"Those that are in teaching now, they teach because they have it in their heart," Alvarez said. "That's what they want to do, but the pay prohibits them to stay in."
The self-proclaimed family man graduated high school and took some classes at Cochise College. He has no master's or bachelor's degrees. The most critical schooling occurs in the first three years of a child's education, from kindergarten to third grade, the candidate said, citing a young mind's openness and vulnerability.
He wants to focus his attention on that tender age-range. The state should fund more youth and summer programs, which will keep more and more kids away from the temptations of drugs and crime, Alvarez said.
The Vietnam-era Army veteran has more than 30 years of experience working in government. He retired in 2000 from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Soon after, he ran unsuccessfully for the Cochise County Board of Supervisors.
He shrugs off the loss, saying, "That one didn't work out."
Cochise County Republican Party Treasurer Dick Haines has followed Alvarez's career for 30 years. The representative has developed into a decent Democrat, Haines said.
"As far as Democrats go, he's a pretty good one," he said. "He's done a good job, but we would like to see him retire," he joked.
Alvarez remains unruffled, despite both Democratic and Republic pundits predicting a tight house race. He seems content to let the voters decide, again proven by his subtle campaign and a statement he made at a recent debate.
"It all depends on (if) the public wants me to be elected or not," he said. "Here I am. What you see is what you get."
He shrugged his shoulders and slid the microphone to fellow Democratic house candidate Pat Fleming, who smiled at Alvarez.
He seemed to not notice.