John Vargas has been Trustee of the El Camino Community College Board of Trustees since 2013. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Hawthorne School District from 2009 to 2013. He has served many leadership positions in business and finance for educational systems, most recently as Executive Director of The New City School in Long Beach from 2014 to 2015. He currently is an Independent Consultant for charter schools. Vargas has relied heavily on his twin background in business and finance as well as familial ties for his rising success. Here, he shares how he used his financial acumen to double his fiscal outcome.
What was the one thing no one told you about being an elected official that you wish you’d known before you were elected?
How much you need to have staff on your side, or you can get nothing done. I thought it was focused on me, the elected official, but you have to get everyone else on board—not just the five people on your board. You need to get staff to buy-in, as well as the community. If you don’t they will not execute your policy because they’re there every day, day-in and day-out. It’s about everyone together. Otherwise it’s like a president without a congress — nothing gets done.
As an elected official you must balance your job, your duties as an elected official and family obligations, not to mention trying to find personal time for yourself. How do you balance all these duties and obligations? Is there a secret to doing this well you can share?
You have to accept that you can’t be everywhere at once. I’ve seen colleagues who try to be all things, especially the younger ones, who then realize they can’t. You have to prioritize where you need to be and be strategic. Having a flexible career is helpful. My work and official duties are both flexible. As for a personal life, it’s good to find someone who understands what you do. Otherwise, your relationships can be strained and you might have trouble in your elected duties as well.
Who was your political mentor—someone who guided and supported you and prepared you for public service? Name the person—your campaign manager, your spouse, parent, another political candidate. What kind of advice did they give you that was the most important/useful to you? What did they teach you?
My brother, Alex Vargas, who is currently the Mayor of Hawthorne. We both started our political careers at the same time in 2009. I go to him for the hard issues and he advises me, guides me and backs me up. He’s the oldest in my family and I’m the youngest; I always looked up to him. He began inviting me to campaign events and we eventually started a community association together. That catapulted us to running for office. Over time it has become a mutual mentorship, in which we advise each other and share perspectives. Just having a friend you can fully trust is so important in politics.
Describe a project you spearheaded or supported that you’re proud of. Why was it successful and what did you learn from it that helped you be a better policymaker?
When I was on the school board in Hawthorne, we had a project to build a gymnasium that costed $5 million. The staff did a presentation for the board showing all its bells and whistles. Instead of accepting the recommendations, I started asking fiscal questions, like are we paying the right amount for this? Where can we save on the cost? This started an investigation and research that prompted renegotiations. We decided to scale back and were ultimately able to build two gymnasiums for the price of one. The gyms are on two of the three middle school campuses today. How that helped me to become a better policymaker is that I learned how to challenge and to ask questions: Can we do better? Have we looked at all the angles? Is this the best price we can get? It’s about knowing how to read the room and running with it. It doesn’t always come easy—I’m not a challenger, and I do it more subtly. Growing up we didn’t go against the grain, but my father would have a lot of discussions around the dinner table where we would always ask questions, so I grew up with that dynamic.
What was the most memorable day of your life?
The day my nephew was born four months ago. My sister struggled to have the baby and he’s the first grandbaby in the family. It’s another stage in our lives. Before him, there were no kids and it was all about us. Now, we have someone else to look after. I have been in public service for many years and thought about my school as my kids, but now it’s closer to home. When I first saw him I said, “OK, I’m going to figure out what preschool to send him to, what school after that.” It reinvigorated me. With each policy I now ask, “How will this affect him?”
If you had to be on one television show, which show would you choose and why? Survivor / Dancing With the Stars / The Voice
Are those the only options I have? This is politics, you know. Let’s see, Survivor—I like camping, but no. The Voice? I can’t sing. It would be Dancing with the Stars. I want to become a better dancer and it would be a fun challenge to learn the mambo and salsa. My write-in vote? The Walking Dead. It’s my favorite show. The zombie apocalypse!
Who will be the next President of the U.S.? Who should be the next President?
The democratic nominee will be the next president, which seems to be Hillary Clinton unless something drastic changes. As far as who it should be, there aren’t any Republicans I’m excited about. The Republicans have had too many candidates, have attacked each other too much, and are too far right. Plus Trump has even lower favorability numbers than Hillary. Toward Latinos, some of his language is too damaging. It’s problematic. Even if he can turn it around and do a 360 on some of his language—it’s still hard to vote for him after that. I’m not saying I’ll vote for Hillary either, although I’ll certainly vote. I really don’t know what I will do.
John Vargas was a trustee for the Hawthorne school district from 2009 to 2014. He is past executive director of the New City school in Long Beach and is currently an education consultant in Hawthorne.
This interview was conducted by freelance writer Mary Ann Marshall.