In his fourth race for Congress, Juan Vargas won an open Southern California district that borders Mexico and includes the southern portion of San Diego. He bested Republican Michael Crimmins to replace veteran Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, who retired to run for San Diego mayor.
Vargas was born in National City, just south of San Diego. He is the son of braceros, legal Mexican immigrants brought to the U.S. for cheap labor. Vargas grew up on a chicken ranch in an urbanized area. He calls it a “great upbringing, something very cool and different from my suburban neighbors.” While other kids at school had dogs and cats, Vargas had pet ducks. “I used to fly them for exercise. I’d throw them in the air, and they’d fly around, and I’d catch them. The other kids thought this was the coolest thing,” he recalled in an interview.
Vargas considered entering the priesthood but said he was wary of going straight into a seminary. Instead, he stayed close to home and attended the University of San Diego, graduating in 1983. After college, Vargas studied with the Jesuits, working with the poor, orphans, and refugees in El Salvador and elsewhere. The Jesuits sent him to Fordham University, where he studied philosophy and earned a master’s degree. At Fordham, he met his future wife, Adrienne, a fellow student who worked with him in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Vargas then moved on to Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 1991 alongside a student named Barack Obama. Vargas guarded the future president in pickup basketball games and says Obama was the more talented player.
After law school, the Vargases settled in San Diego, where he briefly worked at a large corporate law firm. Vargas was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1993. In 2000, he won election to the California Assembly, where he stayed for six years. In 2010, he won election to the state Senate, where Vargas took pro-union stances and advocated government support for children and the elderly. He also sponsored a bill mandating the reporting of child abuse by athletics coaches in California, a direct response to the Penn State University sex-abuse scandal.
Vargas previously ran three unsuccessful campaigns for Congress against Filner in Democratic primaries, twice in the 1990s and again in 2006. That year, both men ran intensely negative campaigns, but Filner prevailed thanks to strong support from Imperial County. Filner’s retirement opened up an opportunity for Vargas.
He easily won the primary with 45 percent of the vote. Political observers expected Vargas and fellow Latino Democrat Denise Moreno Ducheny to advance in California’s new jungle primary, in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, compete in the general election. But Vargas lavished attention on the Republican candidate, Crimmins, in order to help him slide into second place. Vargas also refused to participate in a debate unless Crimmins was included. Meanwhile, Vargas also hammered Ducheny for a previous drunken-driving arrest.
Crimmins ultimately edged Ducheny 20 percent to 15 percent, and went on to face Vargas in the fall election, when his defeat was all but assured in the strongly Democratic district that is two-thirds Latino.