Mayor Pie Alvarez: Coming of Age

MANILA, Philippines - Upon the invitation of her father and just weeks shy of her graduation from Babson College in Boston, Carmela “Pie” Alvarez decided to run for mayor. But Pie did not go into politics naively; in fact, she anticipated the criticism – and cynicism – because of the fact that, yes, she was just 21 when she entered the fray. But the world would soon get the surprise of its life because Pie was out to prove that age is no handicap.

It is her secret weapon.

While other fresh grads are still dreaming of the day when they will have it all, passing resumés and donning their corporate suits on their way to the next big job interview, Pie had already realized her calling. She was living it as the mayor of San Vicente, Palawan.

As the youngest mayor in Philippine history (she is now 23) and the first female mayor of San Vicente, Pie has found her purpose – a calling that entails being roused from sleep at 4 a.m. because of a rogue crocodile that had bitten one of her constituents, officiating weddings and counseling couples (despite being fabulously single), and introducing “Halloween” to her municipal staff whose first question was: “Why does the balde have an orange face?” (“That was the first time they had ever seen a jack-o-lantern.”). This is what she deals with every day – among other things. 

From fashionable to rural

 

Before her mayoral duties, Pie was a junior intern, dashing between offices at Chanel, handing out caramel machiattos to the executives and opening up boxes of haute couture gowns, fresh from the Paris runway. She initially thought the stars had aligned in her favor because this was what – well, at least where – she wanted to be.

But soon the glamour and the glitz of the fashion world fizzled to be the bane of day-to-day existence. Pie realized she really did not want to be part of. “It was the life I thought I wanted, but I wasn’t feeling at home.” At that time, she had not realized it yet, but what Pie yearned for was a purposeful existence. 

So when her father Jose Alvarez, chairman of BMW Philippines and JCA Foundation, asked her one day, during Christmas time in 2008, “Do you want to run for vice mayor (of San Vicente, Palawan)?” She threw him a curve ball: “No… I want to be mayor.”

May the odds be ever in your favor

 

With her pronouncement to run for mayor in the 2010 elections, the critics had their field day. She was young, smart, hardworking and brimming with new ideas, but they easily had written her off like any other fresh grad: “She’s too young. What does she know?”

Aside from her age, other odds were stacked against her. First and foremost, at that time, Pie was still finishing her degree in International Business Administration with a concentration in Environmental Technology and Global Marketing Management from Babson College in Boston. So she needed to divide her time – as well as her attention – between flying to San Vicente and campaigning, and flying back to the US to take her midterms. Secondly, she was inexperienced in politics. Lastly, she was running against veteran politicians, men in their forties with backgrounds in law and diplomacy – all of whom were well-versed in the art of political flattery.

The odds were not in her favor, but she turned the game around. She did what no predecessor had done in the past – she listened. Instead of commanding the stage from a podium – shelling out praise and grandiose promises – she handed over the mic to the people, sat down and listened. “The moment I turned the focus on the residents and answered questions, the tone of the whole campaign shifted. It was no longer about having someone on the pedestal and dictating what they would do. It was their turn to answer me and tell me what they wanted,” she explains.

 “Miraculously,” as she puts it, Pie won.

Work after Winning

 

But now, the real work has to be done. The first thing on her to-do list as a neophyte politician was providing the town and its 30,000 residents with basic necessities such as 24-hour electricity, access to clean water, schools and education and developing the 165,000 hectare paradise into a tourist destination. But she was not going into this haphazardly. “I don’t pretend to be Superman. I’m not a genius at town planning. I believe if you are weak at one thing, ask others to help you.”

This is why Pie partnered with urban and environment planner Karmi Palafox of the renowned Palafox Associates to draft the groundwork that would help bring the rural town to meet the international standards of progress. “My plans are really towards developing San Vicente for tourism the right way, the correct way. It has to be sustainable. I want to make sure that when they develop (the land) the residents of San Vicente do not get left behind.” She points out that she wants to avoid the mistakes of other tourist destinations, which boast the most beautiful beaches and the most modern, luxurious resorts. Yet, when one peers outside the gates, the real situation of poverty makes itself known.

Filipinos don’t have to look far, she notes, as our very own Boracay suffers from the same predicament. “We always complain about Boracay and how overly developed it is. (It is so) because there’s no restriction. From a government standpoint, we have to be restrictive and assertive. It’s good to have rules and regulations so that (the land) is not abused,” she reasons.

While working with the Congress for legislation that will protect Palawan, Pie doesn’t waste any time putting her other plans into motion. Just a few years into her term, she successfully constructed the first domestic airport and first university (which was built in just six months) in San Vicente. “Up until recently, we didn’t have a college in San Vicente. Our high school students had nowhere to go after graduation. Thankfully, with the help of the DPWH, our congressman and my father, we were able to push for a standard six-classroom university building.”

With the university expecting 400 students in the next school year, Pie enthusiastically adds that plans for the university’s expansion is well underway as well as plans for San Vicente’s first hospital. 

Because of San Vicente’s efforts, the town was recently recognized as an “eco-town” by the Global Green Growth Institute, an international organization driven by emerging and developing countries. This meant that all the projects and programs that dealt with climate change and eco-sustainability in San Vicente would be fully supported by the institute. Pie also represented the Philippines at the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community held in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year.

It is true that Mayor Pie Alvarez’s young age is what makes her a novel political figure, but it is what she does despite her youth that makes her truly exceptional. She goes to prove that age really is just a number.

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