First Latina Supervisor Looks To Change The Face of San Diego Politics
It was a rare rainy morning in National City.
Nora Vargas, a Planned Parenthood executive and community college board member, was going door-to-door, trying to do something no Latina has done before — win a seat on the powerful San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
For over two decades, that five-person board has been filled exclusively by white people, and, until just recently, was entirely Republican, in a county that’s begun to swing hard toward Democrats.
“Happy Sunday from National City!” Vargas said to her phone, from underneath a rain jacket. “It’s actually raining a lot, but we’re here to knock on doors.”
She was asking for people’s support in a board district that’s overwhelmingly Latino, and filled with immigrants. But demographics aren’t destiny, and Vargas, squaring off against seven other general election candidates, including the area’s state senator, had to work for every vote.
“Folks in the community would say, ‘We’re going to give you a chance, but we’re going to be watching you. Because politicians come here, they ask us for things, but they never come back.’ That’s the piece that’s really important. We have to deliver for our communities,” Vargas said.
Her campaigning was a success. Vargas squeaked into the top-two general election by a margin of 800 votes. Eight months after that, she won a commanding victory — becoming the first immigrant, the first Latina, and the first Democrat to represent her district.
Now, a month after taking office, Vargas is the vice chair of the San Diego Board of Supervisors, constantly shuffling between press conferences regarding the coronavirus vaccine rollout, and lengthy board meetings trying to appropriate federal relief funds. It’s exhausting, but even deep into the evening, she’s still radiating energy as she speaks about it.
“I still wake up every morning thinking, 'Wow, I get to be a supervisor,'” she said.
Vargas was born in Tijuana. Her mother was a U.S. citizen, and her father was a Mexican citizen, something that’s pretty common in the cross-border megalopolis of San Diego and Tijuana.
Going back and forth between two nations is where she believes her political journey began.
“I think when I realized that I was in a very unique state because I was able to cross the border, that’s when it hit me,” she said. “(I thought) ‘What can I do to make the world better for other people, who don’t have the life experience and privilege I have?’ I think that politics was an avenue for me to do that.”
For Latinas in San Diego, there wasn’t much of a roadmap to political power. Local political offices were handed out by powerful party machines, not leaving much of a path for young people looking to get involved in politics.
So, Vargas had to look elsewhere.
“To be a Mexicana, a Latina, and then later on, what my friends would say, an honorary Chicana, I really count my blessings where going away for college was encouraged. I needed to see the world. I needed to learn,” Vargas said.
Watching her own mother work in local nonprofits, and her grandmother run a cross-border business, she told me they were “unintentional feminists.” She brought their perspectives to a Jesuit university in San Francisco where people with far more wealth and far less diverse life experiences were trying to figure out what was best for immigrant and low-income communities.
“Having those conversations about what feminism was and what women’s rights were had me trying to figure out what does that mean to communities of color, for people who don’t have access or opportunities,” she said.
Vargas found a place to organize and center her work at Planned Parenthood, where she eventually became an executive.
“I was a patient at Planned Parenthood, and in my household, no one talked about sex or sexuality or reproductive health care,” she said. “There’s a lot of myths, and in the Latino community, there’s a taboo about speaking about sexuality. It was eye-opening for me that these services were available for young women.”
Access to health care was a fundamental part of Vargas’ campaign. The county’s board of supervisors has the power to build new hospitals, curb pollution and direct millions of dollars to better health outcomes.
But in San Diego, for decades, that board has not reflected the diversity of the border region.
“Particularly since the ’90s, the board definitely had a complexion,” explained University of San Diego politics professor Carl Luna. “It was white and Republican. There was gender diversity, but that was it.”
In many places in the country, local governments like a city council or town board would hold considerable power over local spending. But in California, the county board of supervisors holds the money bags. And San Diego’s Board of Supervisors is sitting on a vast amount of funding from state and local taxes.
“Seldom anywhere in America do five people have so much power,” Luna said.
In the recent past, the San Diego Board of Supervisors’ Republican majority has built up a huge reserve of funds, adhering to more conservative values of government. While not entirely in step with all the priorities of the Trump administration (especially when it came to the environment), the board voted in early 2018 to support the Trump administration’s lawsuit against the state of California’s “sanctuary policies” for immigrants.
That began to change in November of 2018, when the first Democrat in decades, Nathan Fletcher, won a seat on the board. He pushed the other supervisors in a more progressive direction, including funding a shelter for asylum-seekers who had just crossed the border.
But Fletcher, now the board’s chairman, recognizes that the board needs to lean heavier on Vargas than on some other members, given the diversity of life experience she brings to the board. The rest of the board remains white.
Vargas was immediately put in charge of the county’s vaccine distribution efforts to the Latino community.
“Nora Vargas, the burden she faces is she has to work harder to give voice and perspective to the community she represents. Because that community has never had representation at the same level,” Fletcher said.
Vargas believes that reaching the community in ways they’ll not only understand, but also trust, is the key to ending the pandemic in Latino border communities, which have been devastated by COVID-19.
“I’m talking and I can just code-switch like that,” Vargas explained, switching into Spanish. “And I did it today, and we were talking about environmental justice and I switched, because language shouldn’t be a barrier. After the press conference, I started getting texts from people saying like, ‘Thank you for doing that,’ and that it meant the world to them. But it’s who I am, it’s my community and I want them to understand that they’re being heard.”
Latinas in particular are leading the way into political office in the state and the country, says Dr. Inez González. Right now, in the same district that Vargas represents, Latinas are the mayors of National City and Chula Vista. But important positions all over the county are up for grabs, if there’s a structure for Latinas to succeed.
“People want to make a difference, but people need to know where the power is,” said Inez Gonzalez, who runs MANA De San Diego, a national organization helping Latinas get involved in public service. "There’s certain boards, like the water district board, that people don’t pay attention to.”
MANA De San Diego pushed Vargas to join her first nonprofit board, and they want young Latinas, who turned out in November’s election, to start running for office now, and not wait for seats to open up.
For Vargas, that’s the most important part of her journey. She’s hired several young community organizers to work for her.
“I really want to make sure it’s not as hard as it was for me. My commitment is to try to make sure that the system is really shaken so that the opportunities are there for women and communities of color to rise,” Vargas said.
She hopes that after her, San Diego County politics will never be the same.