Election 2022: Nebraska 2nd District Democratic candidates showcase diversity, debate healthcare, economy

WOWT 6 News Live at 6:30
Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 10:30 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 19, 2022 at 11:56 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Democratic candidates for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District primary race met for a debate at noon Tuesday.

Alisha Shelton and Tony Vargas shared their viewpoints on a range of subjects, and gave insights into what issues they would prioritize as lawmakers.

The hour-long live debate was sponsored by the Omaha Press Club and the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha.

The two Democrats are vying in the primary for the opportunity to unseat Congressman Don Bacon in November. Shelton is a mental-health professional, professional counselor, and community advocate. Vargas is in his second term as a state senator; he’s also a former teacher and school board member.


The first question spotlighted the changing demographics of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional district. Both Democratic candidates are from minority communities.

“We need representation that comes from all walks of life, and when we don’t have that representation, it affects the kind of law that we make,” said Vargas, noting that he and his brothers are the sons of immigrants.

Shelton highlighted her exposure to diversity in her work as a mental health therapist and said constituency services need to change.

“I’m trained to work with people, to represent people. I’m trained to learn how to problem-solve and most importantly build a relationship,” she said, which is something she says the current representative isn’t doing.

“We are so different. We come from so many various cultures and backgrounds, and I’m not ever going to say that I’m just one type of person,” Shelton said. It’s how she was raised, she said, her mother teaching her “to respect humans just because they are on this earth.”

Vargas sees the upcoming election as “a tremendous opportunity for Nebraska.” But it shouldn’t be able political parties, he said.

“I think we’ve seen from the leadership of Congressman Bacon that we need somebody that’s going to fight for working families,” he said. “When I ran for office in the 1st in 2016, I never approached anybody with my party background.”

He attributes that to his upbringing: politics wasn’t discussed in his family’s home when he was growing up — his dad hated talking about politics.

Instead, the focus was on helping others.

“The way to solve problems is by trying to focus on the problems themselves and actually building coalitions with people to bring them along. I say that because it’s not only how I was raised, it’s how I’ve led,” Vargas said, noting 55 pieces of legislation passed during his tenure in the Nebraska Legislature, from healthcare access to voting rights to wages to job opportunities. “We need somebody that knows how to get things done across the aisle, and has a record of getting that done.”

Shelton said politics were often a topic of conversation when she was growing up.

“As a black woman, I had to understand how to be safe in many situations and circumstances, and unfortunately sometimes that’s related to politics,” she said. “What I will say is that my mother taught us to be the change you want to see. If there’s a problem, you need to be bold enough and brave enough to solve it, and I’ve done that my entire life.”


Vargas noted that healthcare access and affordability are a big part of his platform.

“We need to actually have a solution in place,” he said, noting that it’s an issue he’s worked on in the Nebraska Legislature for the last six years, including fighting to expand Medicaid. “And it D.C., we need even more. We need to make sure we’re controlling the cost of prescription drugs. We need a public option so that the market is actually competitive and works better for people.”

Shelton has worked at healthcare centers that serve communities that are often underserved, from Charles Drew Health Center to the Winnebago Native American reservation, helping the tribe purchase the hospital from the government.

“The policies (in Washington) aren’t working for us. And let me tell you something: Your Congressman, Don Bacon, has voted against the Affordable Care Act, and I support that. I support the public option,” she said.

Shelton said she is trained to find solutions and thinks it’s important the district’s next Congressional representative is a healthcare advocate, calling Bacon’s vote on capping insulin copays “shady politics.”


Shelton talked about her family’s dependence on public transportation while she was growing up, relying on bus travel to get to school and other activities. It’s a struggle that spills over into other aspects of life, from being able to afford the things kids need to be able to find work.

She said bold legislation — like bailouts for supply chain industries like Union Pacific and ConAgra — needs to be put forward to help food and other costs go down. She also wants to see minimum wage raised to $15 an hour with research to be done to assess when it needs to increase.

Vargas highlighted his work getting Nebraska’s $1 billion budget passed, working across the aisle. Investing in Nebraska jobs is how to solve the supply chain issues, he said.

“The way we address rising inflation is also investing in our people,” he said, from jobs to education.

The workforce is there, despite the state’s low unemployment numbers, Vargas said. But higher wages and better education and training are needed to help communities in need change “the lifelines of individuals.”

It’s also important to make sure the communities are keeping good jobs and supporting companies that are creating jobs in the U.S., he said.

Shelton said people are “sick and tired” of not being paid reasonable wages, having enough PTO, and not being supported when they need to be there for their families.

She said employees — particularly minorities, who have been most affected by the pandemic — want to be able to take off when they feel they need it.

“What they want is a company that’s going to be there for them. What they want is to be able to create a union,” Shelton said. “What they want is unlimited PTO so that when they need support, they can go and take a mental health day or they can rest.”


Shelton said more is needed to keep guns secure and that she would love to see more legislation around them.

She said she became a gun owner to protect herself while she was in college but criticized the follow-up regulations.

“I do more to maintain my driver’s license than to maintain my gun, and I haven’t even touched it in years,” she said.

Impactful change is needed, and people need to come together to make sure that happens.

“I would love more laws and legislation around my guns. I would love to have, for instance, insurance (requirements),” she said. “I would pay for an insurance policy to make sure my gun does not go into the wrong hands.”

This is especially needed for the youth, she said, who are starting to be known as the “school shooting generation.” There are warning signs, she said, and every school needs mental-health staff to be able to spot and support those who might otherwise turn to violence.

Vargas called for “reasonable gun control that includes universal background checks.”

Listening to common-sense policies will protect the public, he said.

Support for mental health and early education are also important factors in preventing violence in schools, he said.

Watch the full debate

Alisha Shelton and Tony Vargas, vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Congressman Don Bacon in November, will debate live at noon Tuesday, April 19.

This is a developing story. Stay with 6 News for updates.

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