In the first installment of a series introducing us to the people who represent us in Lincoln, student reporter Emily White talks to Tony Vargas, state senator for District 7, which covers downtown and south Omaha. They discuss his beginnings in public service, successes and surprises thus far in the Unicameral, and current issues, both within the state and across the nation.
Talk a little bit about your background, how you got started in politics–particularly what brought you to the Nebraska State Senate.
I’m actually a born and raised New Yorker. My parents are from Lima, Peru, originally; they came to the states when they were about 19 years old, set up shop in New York City, and made a life out for themselves. They worked really hard and taught me and my brothers about hard work and perseverance. You know, I learned a little bit about public service through them, through how they give to others and how they support other people.
And when I realized there’s more people beyond my family that need help and support—I realized that really quickly—I became a teacher, right out of college. I was a public school teacher in Brooklyn, in New York City. I realized I love engaging with the community, and I love public service. Fast forward to when my wife and I moved here to Nebraska for her to go to Creighton Law: we found a home and we also found some purpose wanting to then support our community and do everything we can to advocate for people.
How’s your first term so far going? To keep it brief: what’s one success you’ve had, what’s one thing you want to improve going forward, and what’s one thing that surprised you?
Success. . .two things come to mind; I’m going to focus on one of them. This last year, we worked on some very significant reform in payday lending. It was one of the hardest things we did, because there’s different people on different sides of the issue, but we were able to push forward a bipartisan approach, a step in the right direction for providing consumers some protections from some payday lenders that are more predatory, that are taking advantage of consumers, while also taking into account that there are payday lenders that are trying to do right by the regulations. So this was a real step in the right direction—first time anything’s been done.
Something that surprised me is just how important taking time to get to know other senators and where they come from is. I knew it coming in but you know, Nebraska is as diverse as you can get in terms of geography, representation, constituencies, and I think it’s our job to really figure out and try to understand different areas—what their life is like. That’s part of my job.
Something to improve. . .I think this goes along with the relationship side. For me personally and even in the body as a whole, I think we need to do a better job of creating spaces for us to get to know each other. You know, politics is politics, and sometimes it can become partisan, sometimes it can become very divisive. I find the only way to combat that is by spending time with each other and getting to know each other. It’s a lot harder to not appreciate or find something about somebody that you can connect with when you know them. Let’s find more common ground rather than focus on the things that divide us.
Yeah, that actually dovetails really nicely into something I wanted to talk to you about, because I know a lot of people are concerned that the nonpartisan legislature is becoming increasingly partisan and polarized. What can senators do and what can the public do to make sure that our Nebraska Unicameral stays nonpartisan?
The best that my colleagues and I can do is take time to understand and connect on a couple different issues that might not be immediately supported in their district. I’ll be honest—I don’t often hear about property taxes in my district. It’s not that people wouldn’t care for lower taxes or want some reform in property taxes, it’s just not the top two things that comes to people’s mind. It’s not what I campaigned on. However, it is an issue in our state, and so some other areas of the state are really reeling from it.
I think a nonpartisan way of going about supporting the legislature for senators is realizing that sometimes, very often, we’re supporting and understanding issues that are completely outside what we know and what our constituents might really, truly care about. It’s part of the compromise of being in this body.
We represent approximately 37-40,000 people, and our job is also to then work across Nebraska. So everything we can do to then talk with the people across the aisle—I even hate that term, I think it’s just talking with the other 48 people—and always view it as our responsibility to not just get 25 votes but to then try to work and inform senators so that there’s 24 other people that can support you on your issue.
And then for the public, I think what they can do is work to be as informed as possible. I’ll say this—for Democrats, I think sometimes it’s easy to support a Democrat; for Republicans, it might be sometimes easy to support a Republican. And I think there’s a great place in the Nebraska Legislature for Democrats that will find that there’s Republicans that are pragmatic, very open-minded, like to work with people. We agree on a lot of different things—and I think vice-versa; for some Republicans in our body, they work with Democrats very well—and it’s because of the nonpartisan nature of our legislature.
So I encourage people to get to know people that they don’t know, like other senators, and figure out ways to support them. I do that in my town halls. I always have people from different parties for at least one town hall in my district so that people are seeing and realizing I work constantly with different people, from different parties, from different constituencies, and all across Nebraska.
The current political climate has made certain groups of people uncomfortable—the current rhetoric that’s not only being pushed forth by the administration but also by the general public, the news media, especially in the wake of this migrant crisis down at the border. Your district has a large Latino population. What can you do and what will you do to make that constituency feel more at ease? Whether they’re here legally or undocumented, what can we do to make them feel like they’re not being unfairly targeted by this rhetoric?
You know, honestly, I think this is more of a responsibility on all of us. I think we create this idealism that local elected officials are the only ones that will make or break whether we or not we are supporting a constituency. And there’s a lot I’m going to be doing and have been doing at the local level to support laws that are inclusive in our state.
But federal immigration is going to be at the hands of our U.S. House of Representatives and our U.S. Senators, and what they say and what they do is really going to shape how we manage federal immigration and how we progress and find pathways forward for people.
In the meantime, I think that the way to then bridge this gap that you’re talking about is for more people to engage in conversations with people in their community. I think people need to start to canvass for issues, not just for candidates. I think people need to go to places and spaces that they normally don’t go.
Part of what divides us is that we don’t understand each other, and if we spent more time with each other, I really believe that we’d find some more common ground, and then other people wouldn’t feel like “other people.” I think people would appreciate that there are individuals that are undocumented, that are working, and that are contributing to our society and want to find a pathway to then be a part of our state and part of our country. And if they realize that and then they know them, I think they’d also want to try to find a way to support them through legislation at the federal level and then also find ways to support them just through the community.
Over the next decade or so—I know that’s a little bit long-term—what goals do you have for yourself and for your district?
For my district, I have two more years remaining for this term. I’ll be honest, my goal isn’t necessarily to just win an election. My goal when I ran this first time was to increase civic engagement, and I think we saw that in the primary election: about 40 percent of the people that voted did not vote in the last few presidential primaries. They didn’t vote in 2008 and 2012 when there was a contested presidential primary. They came and voted for this election. Same thing we saw in the general election: we also increased voter turnout in 2016 in my district by about 2100 or 2200 votes from 2008. So we had about 27 percent new people voting in our district.
My goal is in 2020 to continue to increase voter turnout in my District 7, downtown and south Omaha. I want more people to be voting because I think when more people vote, people like me feel more held accountable, they feel more engaged in the government process, and they start to have more faith in the system.
And then by the end of 2024, should I be elected (and I’ll be knocking on everyone’s door again!), my real hope is that by that time, we’ll continue to support the nonpartisan legislature. We will be able to create some new revenue sources and be creative about how we’re going to bring in some new sources that then help us prioritize what we believe is going to help us grow our state. It’s going to be a really hard road over the next several years, but we’re going to need to figure out and invest in things, like education—because that is ultimately our future—and then health care is another piece that I really hope that we start to double down on.
Our country—more importantly, our state—is growing. Our older population is growing in the state of Nebraska, we’re becoming more diverse, and factions of poverty are growing as well. And so, if over the next six years, I can work with other senators on a long-term plan on how we’re going to support those different groups, I think we’re setting ourselves up for success. That’s something I really hope to be able to do.
Really quick, we’ll end with sort of a fun question, although it’s one I think is revealing of people. Choose anyone—alive or dead, doesn’t matter. If you could have dinner with anyone and pick their brain, who would it be and why?
[thinking] Who would it be. . .dinner with somebody. . .who would it be? That is a great question.
It’s kind of a curveball. [laughing]
No, it’s a great curveball. I would probably have dinner—and this is also showing you two sides of me—with Alexander Hamilton. With the musical and his history and autobiography, I’ve connected with the gritty, pull yourself up by your bootstraps [attitude]: not from politics, from wanting to do right by a country that’s growing. I think that same thing is needed now.
I want to glean what was it like getting into the foyer of politics and shaping our country at a time where somebody with his background would have really never been caught in this world, and it’s exactly what we need right now. I think we have representation that comes from politics, but we need more people that don’t necessarily come from that [background] that are putting themselves in the foyer, and I would like to get some advice from him on how we can do a little bit more of that.
And then just how he shaped the country, as an immigrant. My parents are immigrants and I identify as a first-generation American—that means something to me. I’d probably want to have dinner with him.