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OMAHA -- Big year for Tony Vargas.

He's getting married July 9 and he may be standing at the threshold of becoming the only Latino member of the Nebraska Legislature in January.

That's still up to the voters in his multi-layered but heavily Latino legislative district to decide in November, but Vargas emerged from the primary election at the head of a three-candidate pack.

That 7th District contest was Nebraska's most intriguing legislative primary battle in May, pitting Sen. Nicole Fox against Vargas and former Sen. John Synowiecki.

Here are the final vote totals: Vargas, 1,220; Synowiecki, 745; Fox, 725.

Ahead at the turn; out front. But not home yet.

As the only Republican candidate in the heavily Democratic district, Fox was slogging uphill all the way in her attempt to retain the seat she acquired when Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed her to succeed Jeremy Nordquist after he resigned last year to become Rep. Brad Ashford's congressional chief-of-staff.

Her departure from the race leaves two Democrats to slug it out now.

Vargas will take a time-out for his marriage to Lauren Micek, but he'll be showing up at the doorsteps of 7th District households again after that. He knocked on 7,000 doors before the primary and listened while people told him their stories.

Vargas, 31, sat down last week for breakfast at Louie M's, the iconic South Omaha restaurant on Vinton Street with the colorful brick interior where early-morning customers were largely elderly, including a striking number of men who hobbled in displaying the apparent injuries of a lifetime of hard work.

"I'll be fighting for hard-working families," Vargas said. "That means working for Medicaid expansion, jobs, economic development and quality of life."

Almost 5,000 residents of the district would be eligible for needed Medicaid expansion assistance, Vargas said, and finally be able to get the health care denied to them now because they cannot afford to buy insurance or pay the cost of adequate care themselves.

Among the other concerns he hears at doorsteps is the impact that onrushing redevelopment may have on people's ability to remain in their homes as areas are identified as blighted and low-cost housing is replaced by condos, apartments and restaurants. 

So, affordable housing will also be one of his concerns, Vargas said.

"I'm committed to help the little guy," he said.

This is a district with a rich tapestry that includes South Omaha and its large Latino population, older Eastern European neighborhoods, the Little Italy precinct where he lives, downtown condo dwellers, the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies and the historic Old Market.

Drive down the 24th Street business district in South Omaha and you will see block after block of Latino businesses. Los Tres Dinamicos; Centra Cristiano La Roca; Bienvenidos a la Plaza Latina. A block over on 23rd Street is Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. 

The Latino population in the legislative district hovered at just under 50 percent in 2010 and probably is higher now; the nonwhite population is about 58 percent.

If Latinos held proportional representation in the 49-member Legislature based on state population figures, they would occupy four or five seats. Today, they hold none.

Only once has there been a Latino state senator and that was Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns in 1999 and then was elected to four-year terms in 2000 and 2004. 

So this contest comes with history attached and points to a future that is unfolding.

Nebraska's Latino population is approaching 10 percent now; it will be 16 percent in 2030 and 24 percent in 2050, according to projections by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research.

In May, Vargas won 10 of 12 precincts and voter turnout in the district increased by 35 percent from the last legislative primary election. Forty percent of the voters had not voted in any of the last three primaries; that's 1,109 new or energized voters.

Almost a thousand more people voted for a legislative candidate in the district than cast a vote for president, turning the usual down-ballot experience of declining vote totals on its head.  

Aggressive voter registration efforts will continue with Sergio Sosa setting the goal of a thousand more new voters before the November election.

Sosa, founder and executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, says Latinos believe it is important for the community to "have someone who is Latino pay attention to the issues that concern them."

There's no doubt that Donald Trump will drive voter turnout in this district in November, Vargas said, but that impetus may motivate Trump supporters as well as voters who are angry or alarmed by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's anti-immigrant language and targeting of Mexicans.

"Trump will have an impact, but people need to be informed down the ticket," he said, down there below president and Congress where his name will be found and where legislative action can be taken to address their needs and concerns. 

"We are focused on voter registration now," Vargas said, "but we need to make sure voters know who we are. And we need to focus on getting them to the polls."

His experience as a member of the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education has helped prepare him, Vargas said.  

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As the OPS board member representing downtown and South Omaha, he has focused on issues like closing the student achievement gap, addressing inequities in the school system and increasing both parental and community engagement. 

Vargas is the son of Peruvian immigrants; his father worked as a machinist and his mother worked on an assembly line. He grew up in New York City and began his career as a middle school science teacher in Brooklyn. 

Despite last May's primary results, Synowiecki suggests the race is far from over.

"Tony ran an effective primary campaign and attracted a lot of new voters," Synowiecki said. But the general election turnout will be "very different than the primary," he said, much larger in number and focused now on "a head-to-head race" between two Democrats.

"The dynamics will be much different," he said. "I'm very well-positioned" to appeal to more Fox voters than Vargas is, he suggested, based on a number of issues. 

Vargas has spoken in support of charter schools, Synowiecki said, and that would "direct resources away from the public school system."  

Synowiecki noted that as a senator he supported legislation in 2006 to allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition rates in Nebraska's public colleges and universities and that vote was cited in negative Republican mailers dropped in the district prior to the primary vote.

And, he said, voters should know that he's lived in the district all his life.

His bid to return to the Legislature has the support of Nordquist, who once was his legislative aide, and Sen. Heath Mello, who also represents portions of South Omaha, Synowiecki said. 

Synowiecki, who is director of resource development for Catholic Charities of Omaha, was appointed to the Legislature by Johanns in 2001 and was elected to a four-year term in 2004 without opposition. 

His seven years of legislative experience can help "advance the causes of South Omaha," he said. 

Vargas dismissed charter schools as a nonissue, not part of the fabric of Nebraska law or the state's education system now and nothing that he plans to propose in the form of legislation.

Instead, Vargas said, he is focused on issues important to people in the district.

"I feel very, very fortunate," he said. "It's very rewarding to spend almost every day talking to families. In this district, titles don't mean anything. What matters is respect for individuals.

"People are very welcoming. I am very lucky," he said.

"I want to improve the quality of life for families who don't normally get a seat at the table," Vargas said. "Those families are my family."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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