Meet the Doctor & Activist Bringing the Voice of the Community Back to the Puerto Rican Senate

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It goes without saying that Puerto Rico’s political fortunes are intimately bound up with the United States. So it’s no surprise that the difficult and traumatic election we just lived through stateside was paralleled by a similarly tumultuous race on the island – with an outcome that also deeply disappointed progressives.

Indeed, after the votes were tallied, voters were largely divided between the incumbent Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) and independent candidates Alexandra Lúgaro and Manuel Cidre. Carrying a paltry 42% of the vote, statehood advocate and renowned antagonist of the LGBT community Ricky Roselló was elected 12th governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Yet, despite its concrete outcome, this election season brought some very positive developments that point toward an optimistic future for Puerto Rican politics. Not least among them was the election of independent senatorial candidate José Vargas Vidot: a doctor and community activist whose unconventional “anti-campaign” rejected big money donors in favor of an extended, community-driven dialogue.

Characterized by his trademark doctor’s scrubs, scruffy ponytail, and the colorful bandanas worn over his head, Vargas Vidot has labored for decades as the founder and director of Iniciativa Comunitaria: a public health organization dedicated to the well-being of the homeless and people with substance abuse disorders. Naturally, he carried his organization’s collaborative model into his candidacy, and positioned himself as a champion of the “tired, forgotten people” of Puerto Rico.

Though he is an unabashed advocate for independence from the United States, Vargas Vidot also opted not to associate himself with the traditional Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, instead using his campaign to criticize the petty bickering and self-interest of party politics on the island. Yet he accomplished all of this with a tone of deep respect and humility, synthesizing his worldview when he proclaimed, “Humility is more powerful than force.”

This promise of a transformational, community-oriented politics, together with Vargas Vidot’s patent authenticity and selflessness, captured the hopes of Puerto Rican voters hungry for a more responsive and transparent government. And in the end, they were able to channel those hopes into an resounding mandate when Vargas Vidot received the highest vote percentage of any at-large senator in the race. Characteristically, the newly minted Senator-elect received the news with modesty, and he spent the afternoon going door to door to congratulate his fellow winners, expressing his willingness to work with candidates regardless of their party or ideology.

Vargas Vidot celebrates his election with a symbolic march on the Puerto Rican capitol. (Photo: El Nuevo Día)
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And if there were any doubts about how the establishment would receive such an unabashed outsider, returning Senate President Tomás Rivera Schatz, of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) put it best. “I’m very pleased with [his election], and I think he will contribute to the Senate in a very positive way,” he said in a recent interview. “The man is of an unquestionable moral and intellectual stature, and what’s more, he’s very hard working.”

While not all of us will be in Puerto Rico to experience the positive effects of this fresh new political voice, his win is a reminder that despite the outcome of this past election, there are still plenty of people doing important work to guarantee a more just and prosperous future for all. Indeed, 2020 may turn out to be a very good year.