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Andy Vargas got his first taste of State House life at 16, as a Haverhill High School student working with a Massachusetts coalition called Teens Leading the Way.
He went with the group to Beacon Hill to lobby for a bill that would make civics education a requirement for high school graduation. And while the bill died in committee, Vargas’ interest in politics took hold.
Eight years later, in November 2017, he was sworn in at the State House, the first Latino elected to the House of Representatives from the Third Essex District, which includes much of Vargas’ hometown of Haverhill.
“Democracy is a promise,” Andres X. Vargas (CAS’15) told the packed chamber that day. And to watch the 24-year-old keep that promise on one of his regular Friday district days, a reporter risks sore feet and a caffeine overdose. State reps aren’t given a budget to rent a local office, so Vargas meets constituents and local pols in the hip coffee shops that are popping up in this mill city. On this January day, he also grabs a quick working lunch with a state development official at a new Dominican restaurant, then heads off to a downtown parking lot to hand out bag lunches to the homeless.
“Young guy, very energetic, very passionate about public service,” says Joe D’Amore, founder of the Merrimack Valley Hope Mission, organizer of the food distribution.
He is also pragmatic, says Michael McGonagle, a Haverhill city councilor who served on the council with Vargas before the BU alum was elected to the House. “He didn’t come in to the council trying to know everything and be everything,” McGonagle says. “For his first six months, he listened.”
In 2017, Vargas joined McGonagle and three other councilors in voting down the longtime mayor’s budget, before making a deal that put more cops on the street. “The level of maturity this kid showed really impressed me,” says McGonagle. “We didn’t get everything we wanted. A lot of people want something they can put their name on, but he put his ego on the back burner and said, ‘I’m going to support what I think is best for the city.’”
Vargas, whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, grew up in Haverhill, and was accustomed to lively political discussions before the rice and beans hit the table. His mother liked to challenge the debaters by saying, “That’s an important issue, but what are you going to do about it?”
Vargas, one of three children, got the message. When he learned that many local kids couldn’t afford to join a youth league baseball team, the fervent pitcher organized Haverhill Baseball for All, a free league that used donated equipment. He also helped his father pack school supplies and sports equipment to take to the Dominican Republic on trips organized by the nonprofit Organización Dominicana de Recursos Internacionales.
He was 11 the first time he went along.
“You can still win elections by running a positive campaign.”
At BU, Vargas had a double major: political science and international relations. He landed an internship at the Obama White House for his final semester, researching issues pertaining to immigration, the economy, and US–Latin American relations, and working on Hispanic media engagement. Near the end of the internship, President Obama addressed the interns. “Don’t think about who you want to be,” he said. “Think about what you want to do.”
Scrolling Facebook that night, Vargas saw that Haverhill teachers were organizing a demonstration to call attention to their low pay, and that a friend had lost a loved one to opioids.
A few weeks after Commencement, back home and sharing a bedroom with his 14-year-old brother, he took out papers to run for city council. In a race for 9 at-large seats with 8 incumbents and 5 former councilors among 18 candidates, few observers gave the 21-year-old much of a chance.
Campaign headquarters was his mother’s dining room table, and his signs were hand-stenciled. But he knocked on every door he could, and on November 3, 2015, he came in third overall, becoming the first Latino elected official ever in a city that is 20 percent Latino.
Vargas tackled council business at night and on weekends, while working days at Lowell-based nonprofit Entrepreneurship for All, which aims to revitalize mid-size US cities that have fallen into decline by supporting local entrepreneurs with a small-business accelerator program and mentoring.
He was planning his run for reelection when the longtime state representative for the Third Essex District stepped down to take a job in the private sector. In November 2017, Vargas won the House seat over his Republican opponent with 53 percent of the vote.
“You can still win elections by running a positive campaign, as long as you have a sound message and stick to the issues,” he says. “We’re not as divided as some would like us to believe. When it comes down to it, we all value safety, opportunity, fairness, and human dignity.
“Being the first Latino elected in a city that should have seen it happen a while ago comes with many expectations and challenges,” adds Vargas, who has been married since summer 2017 to Rikelma Jimenez-Hidalgo, a Haverhill High School US history teacher. “It also affords me the opportunity to view issues from multiple lenses, understanding that many of the systemic issues we face in our society directly impact members of my family.”
Vargas ticks off his legislative priorities, including education—95 percent of Massachusetts school districts invest more money per pupil than Haverhill—and the opioid crisis, which has hit the city hard. Haverhill averaged two overdoses per day in February 2018.
He knows that it will take a while to master the Byzantine ways of Beacon Hill. “The key is to understand the power dynamics, how things get done, but to also understand what issues are important to whom and what coalitions you might be able to build off those issues,” he says. “But you have to have some red lines that tell you that you can’t go there, you can’t compromise on that.”
Because his predecessor left in the middle of his term, Vargas has already started campaigning for reelection in November.
In March 2018, he and a group of legislative leaders unveiled S.2355, An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, which outlines civic education principles for the commonwealth, very much like the bill that stalled eight years earlier. Versions have passed the House and Senate, and Vargas is optimistic that a reconciled bill will be enacted this summer.