State Sen. Tony Vargas pledged Tuesday to advocate for the needs of working families if elected to Congress from the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.
“I’m a product of a working family. I think we need someone in Congress who doesn’t lose sight of what working families are experiencing,” he said.
Vargas, who represents southeast and downtown Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature, announced Tuesday that he will seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. House seat now held by Republican Rep. Don Bacon.
Vargas, 36, becomes the second Democratic candidate in a battleground district. Alisha Shelton, a 39-year-old mental health practitioner, announced last week.
Vargas, a former science teacher at a public school in Brooklyn whose parents emigrated from Peru, was elected to the Legislature in 2016. He was reelected in 2020 with more than 75% of the vote, the largest margin of an incumbent lawmaker. Before the Legislature, he served on the Omaha Public Schools board.
In an interview, Vargas said he has used his time in public office to fight for the needs of working families, including health care, “living” wages, job opportunities and quality public education.
“I got into politics because my parents always taught me that people and community were the main things. They said not to lose touch with that,” Vargas said. “I’m a politician who is actually walking the walk.”
Nationally, Democrats are eyeing the 2nd District — which covers all of Douglas County and western Sarpy County — in hopes of flipping it. In 2020, voters in the district gave then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Democrat, the edge in the presidential race while sending Bacon back to Congress for a third term.
Bacon previously told The World-Herald that he plans to run for reelection. His Democratic opponent in 2018 and 2020, Kara Eastman, has said she isn’t planning a third run for the seat.
Without assessing Bacon’s work in Congress, Vargas said the 2nd District needs a representative willing to work across the aisle, to address the “real” problems of the country and attack the “hyper-partisanship” in Washington, D.C.
“I think leadership is not who’s in the front of the room, who’s yelling the loudest, it’s leading by example,” Vargas said.
In the Legislature, he has served on the Appropriations Committee, which writes up the state budget, and as chairman of the Planning Committee, which seeks to lay out long-term priorities for the state.
He has been especially vocal in seeking protections for meatpacking plant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vargas’ father died after contracting the illness in New York City.
Vargas called himself “a bipartisan leader” and said he has worked with Republicans in the Legislature on several issues, including passing balanced budgets. In 2021, he introduced bills on student discipline, racial impact statements for legislation and eliminating state veto power over local steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A year ago, the Omaha police union criticized Vargas for a series of tweets that stated it was “alarming and unacceptable” that peaceful protests in Omaha in the wake of George Floyd’s murder “were met with pepper balls, tear gas, and riot gear.”
Douglas County GOP Chairman Christian Mirch, in a tweet Tuesday, said Vargas has been among the most liberal senators in the Legislature, ranking 49th out of 49 lawmakers in 2019 by the American Conservative Union.
“Mr. Vargas has already shown he’s an ideological clone of Kara Eastman,” Mirch tweeted. “We look forward to highlighting his extreme record.”
Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the party is working together to defeat Bacon and elect either the first Latino or African American to Congress from the Omaha area.
“Senator Vargas has a history of governing and standing up for workers,” she said.
Vargas, who moved to Omaha in 2012 as his wife pursued a law degree, is among the first generation of his family to earn a college degree. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester and a master’s in education at Pace University in New York City. Most recently, he worked as a consultant to nonprofits.
He and his wife, Lauren, have two children. They are parishioners of St. Frances Cabrini Church.
World-Herald Staff Writer Ryan Hoffman contributed to this report.