October 25, 2006 - Charlene Pesquiera got into the race for state Senate late. She made the decision to run just two weeks before the ballot deadline and it wasn't until mid-October that her signs joined others at busy intersections.

But the soft-spoken political novice said she jumped on a surprise opportunity to run and believes she has the work experience to get elected.

The Democrat is running against Republican Al Melvin for the District 26 seat. Melvin upset three-term Republican incumbent Toni Hellon in the September primary.

"In terms of my opponent, I think people will see a tremendous contrast," Pesquiera said of Republican State Senate candidate Al Melvin. "Voters look at me, a candidate who has dedicated their career to Southern Arizona, that knows the issues, that understands family and children and what our community needs."

Pesquiera started out with the intention of running as a clean elections candidate, but didn't get enough $5 donations to qualify. Each legislative candidate must get 210 donations to qualify. She wouldn't explain why she couldn't get enough donations.

Getting into the race late left Pesquiera with little time to plan a campaign, and she mentioned a few times having some work commitments she needed to finish up before she could focus all her time on campaigning.

But she said she's been walking door-to-door to get her name out and raising money, which she said has been surprisingly easy.

"Well, I've worked a lot with school districts as a grant writer and fundraiser, so that was actually very easy for me," she said.

She hasn't submitted any campaign finance reports as of Oct. 17, but she's dolling out signs and had enough to feed more than 30 Saturday morning walkers, meaning she must have some money.

"I'm not really behind, per se," Pesquiera said of Melvin, who says he's been campaigning for a year and a-half. "I think we're about even in terms of name recognition, which is interesting for me because my signs haven't been posted."

A Democrat has never won District 26 in the Senate or House, but the calm, and sometimes-nervous Pesquiera, said she doesn't care.

Because she has worked in schools and the justice system, she said she has name recognition simply from her experience.

A nearly life-long Tucsonan, Pesquiera has lived in Arizona for 35 of her 43 years. She now lives in Oro Valley with her husband and her 13-year-old son who attends Painted Sky Elementary.

She's made a career working as a business consultant, grant writer and criminal justice professor at ITT Technical Institute.

Working with children in state prisons, in juvenile detention centers, and in foster care, Pesquiera said she understands issues facing today's youth in public education.

She also has implemented after-school programs through federal grants.

Pesquiera wants to take that experience and use it to make laws in the state Senate.

Like several legislative candidates, education is at the forefront of her platform. But she said she wants to look at education from a different perspective.

"I think I'm the only candidate from early on that is talking about why our ranking is so low," she said. "We continue to raise the bar and standards for our youth, but what we're not looking at is where they are in terms of teen pregnancy, violence and substance abuse that lead to behavioral problems."

Addressing behavioral problems, she said, can help get to the heart of some of the academic difficulties.

"I'm a big advocate for after school programs and mentoring because I think I've seen it work over and over again," she said.

Providing high-risk children tutoring and athletic opportunities can make a big difference, she said.

"If we have these programs, we give them a reason and a chance to excel."

Pesquiera said it's not a matter of simply funneling more money into education. Instead, she said, school districts can apply for grants.

"I'm happy to see (Democratic Superintendent of Schools candidate) Jason Williams, who is also advocating and supporting mentoring programs," she said. "And with that, being able to have a superintendent who understands that it's not necessarily spending more dollars."

"There is money out there people have not explored," she said, without offering any specifics, other than grants.

Kathy Pastryk, a Pesquiera volunteer who gathered on a recent Saturday to walk door-to-door for Democratic candidates, said she hopes the disgust for Republicans in Washington translates to how people vote locally.

"We just hope people will vote for Lena (Saradnik) and Charlene," Pastryk said, who added that she knows it's tough for a Democrat to win District 26.

Pastryk said she feels like a minority on her street.

"You guys live in a Republican district," shouted Katie Bolger, Pesquiera's walk coordinator. "These lists are Republicans and Independents. We're after the crossover."

Before hitting the streets with her volunteers, Pesquiera discussed the rest of her platform.

She calls herself a "big advocate" for health care for women, children and seniors. Helping Arizonians get better healthcare and cheaper drugs is not a matter of creating more bureaucratic programs, she said. It's helping people tap into the ones the state already has.

"We're not getting the word out, or families are not understanding there is insurance coverage out there that can take care of their children," she said.

There are 125,000 uninsured children in Pima County, Pesquiera said, but under KidsCare, an existing state program for low-income families to insure their children, they could get insurance.

Pesquiera also said she wants to lower the cost of prescription drugs by getting the word out about the Copper Card, another existing state program available to all state residents regardless of income. The card gives users 15 to 55 percent off all prescription drugs when used at participating pharmacies.

"I've heard seniors tell me that they're spending anywhere from $400 to $700 a month for prescription drugs," she said. "We have to promote our existing programs and sign up those who are spending that much per month."

Like state House of Reprsentatives candidate Lena Saradnik, a fellow Democrat, Pesquiera said border security is on her platform, but it is nowhere to be found on her Web site or mail flyers.

When asked about the border, as she often is when walking door-to-door, she tells voters she wants to hold human smugglers accountable, although she doesn't specifically explain how. She also said she wants to enforce stricter employer sanctions if they hire illegal immigrants and educate business owners on employee verification documents.

"That's realistic as far as I'm concerned," she said.

A fence, she said, is not realistic. Pesquiera said she spent years working in the prison system and she saw inmates risk everything to escape.

"I've seen inmates jump over a barb-wire fence and get severely cut up and injured," she said. "If people want to leave, they're going to do it. I'm not prepared to spend thousands of our tax dollars for a wall."

Pesquiera also said sarcastically that she applauds the Republican Party for "scaring Southern Arizona about being in a crisis when we're not."

"One of the falsifications of information I continue to hear from the other side, is the reason why our crime rate is so high is because of immigration and that's a false statement," she said.

The prisons and probation rolls are crowded with Arizona citizens, she said.

"It's a false statement to say that illegals are the number one cause of crime, and we should all be scared and hiding in our homes," Pesquiera said. "It's our very own citizens."

Donna Branch Gilby, Chairwoman for the Pima County Democrats, said she is confident that Pesquiera's experience in courts, prisons and foster care will help her make informed decisions for the state.

"We didn't discover her until late May," Gilby said. "But she's a committed candidate. She's committed for children and families."

Gilby said when she interviewed Pesquiera she warned her that she is coming in the race late, and asked if Pesquiera had the physical and mental stamina to get through it.

"Then she told us she's a marathon runner," Gilby said with a laugh. "So I knew once she's made up her mind, she's fully committed to doing her very best."

At the end of an interview at her campaign headquarters, the house she lived in before she married her next-door neighbor three weeks ago, she explained how she got into the race to begin with.

Pesquiera said a woman telephoned her a few months ago and said the woman's son was molested in a state treatment facility.

"I was outraged," Pesquiera said. "I hung up the phone and called every resource I could think of to help her. And I thought to myself 'if I could ever be in a position to make permanent change, to help children and families, I would do that.'"

At about 9 p.m. that same night, Pesquiera got a call from the Pima County Democratic Party, asking her to run for the District 26 Senate seat. She had only minutes to make up her mind.

"So I said 'I'll do it,' and I heard loud cheers in the background," she said. "I knew from then on I couldn't back out."

Pesquiera said through her work, she feels she has been able to make a difference in the community. But she also has long had the desire to make longer lasting impact.

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