Rep. Andy Vargas was elected in November 2017 in a special election to represent Haverhill’s 3rd Essex District. He was re-elected this past November to a full term.
(1) What got you involved in politics in the first place?
Two big influences: family and early exposure to civic engagement as a teenager.
I come from a big and loud Dominican-American family. Every holiday party was full of nuanced debate. My aunts, uncles, and cousins went back and forth on economic, social, racial, religious, and international issues. I had family members on the left and plenty on the religious right. I was a sponge as a kid, listening and learning. The debates often were spirited and loud, but once somebody announced that the food was ready, we were all back on the same team, one family. I’ve tried to take that spirit with me into politics.
In high school, I was a part of a statewide coalition called Teens Leading The Way (TLTW), which brings young people from tough neighborhoods together to develop policy priorities for young people that should be reflected on Beacon Hill. Each cohort of TLTW youth is tasked with coming up with priority legislation for each session in the Massachusetts legislature. Climate change, civil rights, police-community relations, mental health, substance abuse—we debated the merits of each issue during retreats in Maine. For some young people, it was their first trip out of state. We ultimately settled on fighting for civics education for all. We felt that unless we had an informed an engaged electorate, you can be the most passionate person about climate change, but if you don’t know how to build coalitions and navigate democratic institutions then you’re just yelling into an abyss. At 16, we filed a bill – it had 48 cosponsors and bipartisan support and I was captivated by the legislative process. It’s why I’m such a staunch advocate for getting youth (especially those from disenfranchised communities) to get involved in public policy as early as possible.
(2) What inspired you to run for this office?
Most young people from Gateway Cities or even small cities and towns feel that they have to leave their hometown to make a difference or to fully realize their goals. There’s this sense of FOMO if you’re not living in a Boston, New York, DC, Chicago, etc. However, the communities that most need us are these small to mid-sized cities and towns that have vast amounts of untapped potential and rich history.
Haverhill used to be one of the largest shoe manufacturers on the planet. We were home to the first Macy’s. Alexander Graham Bell made his first telephone call here. Abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier made this city his home. There’s a rich history here– a once international city that welcomed immigrants who took on some of the most grueling jobs to build this city.
There were a few things that drew me back home to Haverhill to run for office. I didn’t want to contribute to the brain drain—young people and talent leaving to Boston and bigger cities. When we looked around at local leadership, we also noticed that there was not one elected official of color (despite 20% of the population being Latino) and the average age of the City Council bordered 60. I reflected on what it was like growing up here – the challenges, inequities, and opportunities for growth. I pulled papers to run for City Council and won at 22.
I also thought about how different the outcomes were in my life compared to cousins and friends I grew up close to. I’m one of the few who hasn’t been in and out of the criminal justice system and there are clear systemic barriers and inequities that played a role in that.
(3) What were the most important lessons you learned during the campaign?
Don’t try to be something you’re not. Own your youth and highlight it as a strength. Own your story and be your most authentic self. Most importantly, doors, doors, doors!
(4) What are your priorities for the new legislative session?
In addition to updating our education funding formula and addressing our housing crisis, I’ve prioritized legislation this session that looks to modernize and improve our elections and democratic process here in Massachusetts. Democracy is a garden that we have to tend to every now and then. In these times where faith in our institutions are being tested, I think it’s important for us to look in the mirror and ask how we can invest in building a stronger democracy. To that end, we’ve filed bills relative to Ranked Choice Voting, Same Day Voter Registration, Primary Reform, Post-Election Audits, and a bill that would create an opt-in system for cities and towns that want to allow 16/17 year olds the right to vote in municipal elections.
(5) Why is it important for more young people to get active in the Democratic Party?
Young people today are the first generation in a very long time to be economically worse off than our parents. We’re in more debt, face wage stagnation, a bloated deficit that has been caused by tax loopholes for those who need it least, and a climate crisis that we are going to have to rise to the occasion to address.
We’ve got to show up and exercise our rights and responsibilities as Americans. The Democratic Party is far from perfect, but I still believe that it is the best vehicle to organize the voices of those most marginalized and affected by the status quo.