Andy Vargas, the first Latino state rep from Haverhill, aims to be the kind of elected role model he couldn’t find as a kid
There are a lot of things about the Massachusetts State House that are imposing, even intimidating. From the sheer size of it to its stately architecture, from the marble staircases up to the golden dome. Coming from another country and culture, as I walk through the building I am trying to imagine what the experience is like here for Andy Vargas, who last November was sworn in to the House of Representatives, becoming the first Latino to rep the 3rd Essex District and his hometown of Haverhill.
Vargas is but 25 years old. The son of immigrants from Bonao in the Dominican, before coming to Beacon Hill, when he was only 22, he became the first Latino councilman from Haverhill, a city that according to 2018 US Census estimates counted more than 21% of its population as Hispanic or Latino.
Despite his youth and warmth, Vargas plays the part of politician well. He’s eloquent, and his business attire fits. The rep’s hair is parted to the side; his smile is wide. When we meet, Vargas is wearing a light blue button-up shirt and a sensible blue tie. He carries himself confidently, but his smile also might remind some of a student with big dreams. After all, he only graduated from Boston University four years ago.
He’s also busy pushing policy. A bill Vargas filed last January sought to let communities decide if they want to lower the voting age for local elections, while he recently proposed a ban on religious exemptions for the vaccination of schoolchildren.
When I step into his office, which Vargas, a Democrat, shares with other low-ranking members, all of whom are Republicans, the State House quickly loses its gloom. Printers are running, phone calls are being fielded, people are working. Forget the portraits, busts, and tradition; in here, they’re taking care of daily tasks.
Vargas is welcoming and answers my questions as he eats lunch, a gyro and some fries. As a warm-up, I ask him how he got involved with public service. Vargas gives me an admittedly long-winded, three-pronged answer that is more revealing of his background than I would have expected to get from any politician, even one who is about my age.
First, he tells me, it has to do with his family—even though none of them are politicians. “I grew up in a family where there was always some form of debate,” Vargas said. “En la Navidad, Thanksgiving—whatever it is—people get together and there’s some sort of debate happening about the economy, religion, gay marriage, US-Latin American relations.”
Though Vargas identifies with more progressive values, he relishes the beauty of opposing sides coming together. His conservative uncle and liberal aunt fiercely debate, but only until someone would announce that the food was ready. “Ya basta. Está bueno. Vamos a comer ahora.”
“We can argue all we want, but at the end of the day we’re one big family sitting at the table,” said Vargas. “I think that’s one thing that’s missing from American politics.”
Vargas told me that he works well with the Republicans in his office. He asks for their advice on legislation, or about statements that he might be drafting.
The second thing that drew him to public service was his teachers and his school. “They showed me, particularly my history teachers, how through government, politics, and social movement you can really change the course of history and make life better for people,” Vargas said. “That really drew me first into wanting to study history. But then I realized I was interested in the more active part of it, which is politics.”
Before even graduating from high school, along with a coalition of teenagers, Vargas participated in drafting a Senate bill “to design, pilot, and implement civics as a high school graduation requirement.” Today he is still proud of that.
“We ask kids to recite the Pythagorean theorem but we don’t teach them to exercise their rights as citizens to make their community better,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything more important than producing responsible citizens that understand the role they play in our democracy.”
His third motivation for pursuing politics, Vargas said, is simply hailing from Haverhill—making the three prongs family, school, and city.
“The reality is that where you’re needed the most is probably on that small-to-midsize city. Where there is a brain drain more often than not,” Vargas said. “That was the nail in the coffin that caused me to go back home to pursue public service. Twenty percent of our population was Latino. It wasn’t reflected on city council, school committee, or on the mayor.”
“There was not one Latino elected.”
Speaking about voter turnout and civic engagement, Vargas said the most important thing to realize is that state and local elections are critical. It’s something he said he has believed since he first ran for council, just like he’s always felt that the place he can have the greatest impact is Haverhill.
In 2017, then-Rep. Brian Dempsey, who had been representing the 3rd Essex District in the House since 1991, resigned to go work for a lobbying firm. Vargas jumped on the opportunity, and wound up winning the Democratic primary with 60% of 2,826 votes. In the general election, he won against the Gov. Charlie Baker-backed Shaun Toohey, a member of the school committee, in an election where more than a third of the district’s roughly 20,000 registered voters turned out.
Vargas noted that turnout is often disappointing, particularly among the Latinx community. It’s hard to get some groups to vote, he said, but campaigners have to take the responsibility to try and communicate with them. In his case, for starters, Vargas connects with Dominican voters through WhatsApp, because that’s where they already are.
When Vargas first ran for office, he went to churches, knocked on doors, and passed out flyers. But he was also texting, plus posting on Facebook and Instagram. Vargas said his campaign had a higher engagement rate via text than via email or cold calls by phone and encourages campaigners to similarly adapt. And he’s not simply fishing for votes.
“As a kid, who was the local or state or even national official that I looked up to?” he said. “I couldn’t find a Latino.
“I thought about it a little bit the first time I ran. What it would have meant for me if I was in high school and I saw that my representative looked like me?”
The reaction to his winning among family members was commensurate with the accomplishment.
“My grandmother took three trains in New York to work in three different factories,” he said. “My mother paid her way through college, worked three jobs at one point as well. My dad worked in nursing homes, taking care of elderly folks, and did street outreach work to gangs in Jamaica Plain. All this work—just so their kids could even think of running for office one day.”
Vargas’ family was all in on his campaign. His dad affixed a giant Andy Vargas sign on the back of his pickup truck and lit it up with lights. He would drive around and fire it up at night.
“People would be coming out of bars or whatever and they’d see a truck driving by with a big sign,” Vargas said. “I think that’s one of the greatest assets we have as Latinos: the sense of family. That’s a huge capital. It’s not monetary but it’s a huge capital.”
Vargas is proud of his heritage, and said that he visits family members who still live in Bonao. Still, he believes that being Latino might have worked against him when he was running—in some ways he felt pigeon-holed as “the Latino candidate,” or “the immigration candidate,” and often he felt people were dismissive of his ideas.
Reflecting on his background, Vargas said, “I’m just a kid from Haverhill.” Of course, that’s not the whole story. He first participated in the drafting and filing of a bill when he was in high school. As a double major in political science and international relations at BU, he founded the university’s Political Action Organization, served in student government, and interned at the State House. He also studied abroad in Madrid, worked at the US embassy there, and interned at the White House during the Obama years.
If he’s “just a kid” from Haverhill, Vargas is an exceptionally driven kid. He has worked hard at it.
In his last race, during the debates for his House seat, Toohey tried to put the immigration label on Vargas. The Republican attempted to tie the Democrat to legislation that enabled sanctuary cities. It was disappointing to Vargas, who thinks immigration doesn’t need to be a partisan issue.
“To say that we want to prioritize people that are a threat to public safety, whether they are undocumented or not, that shouldn’t be controversial,” he said.
“All I could say was that I’m proud of my heritage and that I’m here to work for everybody, for the entire city. Even to the folks that are marginalized, I’m here to serve them all.
“Sometimes that means making sure that everybody has a seat at the table.”