John Paul Alvarez lives for the look in a student's eye that shows he or she gets it. At Stirling Elementary School in Hollywood, the baby-faced teacher is known for working well with troubled third-graders.
Perhaps it's because he recognizes himself in them. Alvarez grew up in Miami, just south of the airport, as the son of two Cuban immigrants who made their way over to Florida in the '60s. Although his parents opened a sandwich shop downtown, it floundered after a few years, leaving them to work a series of what Alvarez remembers as "the bad jobs, the hard jobs."
But now Alvarez, a Democrat, is asking for South Floridians' permission to take on a hard job his parents could have never dreamed of. He wants to serve as District 100's state rep and prioritize women's rights, LGBT rights, and education. If granted his wish, he'll also be making history as Broward County's first openly gay state rep. The district stretches south to Hollywood, Hallandale, Sunny Isles, Aventura and North Miami Beach.
The wannabe politico moved with his family to Fort Lauderdale at age 9 and eventually graduated from Stranahan High School -- making him the first in his family to earn a diploma. After a stint at Broward College, he matriculated at the University of Central Florida and eventually ended up with a degree in public history.
After teaching in the Central Florida area for a few years, he became disenchanted with the way things were going in Tallahassee. The newly elected Rick Scott cut billions from the education budget, which infuriated him.
In 2012, the then-28-year-old with no political experience under his belt campaigned for state rep in District 53, in Brevard County. He beat out a fat cat in the primary, losing by a slim margin to his Republican competitor in the general election.
"District 53 is a very red county, and I got more votes than Obama there that year," he says. "People were like, 'Dude, John, you can't quit now.'"
So after returning home to Broward, he's decided to try again. It's a much more liberal area, he says, and the person who wins the August primary will almost certainly be the one to replace Rep. Joe Gibbins, who has reached his term limit.
Alvarez has a tough race ahead of him -- perhaps by his own design. He refuses to accept contributions from corporations, which means he's got a whole lot less to work with than his opponents. His biggest opponent, attorney Joesph Geller, is hoovering up donations from companies that want to see more casinos around Hollywood. And the difference is stark. So far, Alvarez has raised only $34,393.30 to Geller's $165,077. Geller led Miami-Dade Democrats for more than 10 years and served two terms as North Bay Village mayor.
Still, Alvarez doesn't seem to mind handicapping himself. He's hopeful that the gay communities in Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors will be supportive and that other people will just use common sense in electing the person who prioritizes people over pari-mutuels.
"In Broward County, to be a politician, typically you've gotta be a lawyer or a businessman, and I'm a public servant," he says. "But I think anybody who has a good brain and instincts can be a good state rep, and when you look at who supports [each candidate], I think it says a lot."
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