Advocates look to line up Latino voters in new 15th District
YAKIMA, Wash. — Building on a historic redrawing of the Yakima Valley’s legislative districts, minority advocates plan to mount a voter registration campaign to increase Latino participation and influence in local and state politics.
But just how quickly or sweeping changes would be remains an open question.
The Washington State Redistricting Commission nearly at the 11th hour Sunday created a majority Latino 15th District entirely within Yakima County. Along with its Lower Valley focus, the district now includes parts of the city of Yakima as well as Terrace Heights, Selah and Gleed, along with the eastern part of the county.
The new district’s western edge follows U.S. Highway 97 from Union Gap to the Klickitat County line.
The district would be much more compact, effectively switching places with the 14th District, which would include parts of Yakima and the western part of the county as well as Klickitat, Skamania and part of Clark County.
The Legislature can make minor adjustments to the commissioners’ maps in the upcoming session. But lawmakers can’t change more than 2 percent of a district’s population and that requires a two-thirds vote.
According to the commission, the new 15th District’s population is 54.5 percent Hispanic, by far the largest of any of the state’s 49 legislative districts.
That majority was more or less a given because Latinos have been the majority population in most Lower Valley cities and towns for the better part of two decades.
OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant rights group that has been working in the Yakima and Tri-Cities areas, will now step up its efforts with a voter registration campaign early this year targeted to the Latino population.
Executive Director Pramila Jayapal said Tuesday in a telephone interview that there also are plans to place an organizer in Yakima to continue an education campaign focusing on the importance of Latino participation in the democratic process.
Jayapal called the new district a big victory that offers a chance for the various constituent groups to recognize the things they have in common as well as each other’s issues.
“We have to do the work to educate why voting is so important,” she said. “Also, there has to be an identification of the issues in the community that are important. That will be important to anyone running for elective office. They now have a significant constituency that has particular issues that affect them.”
A successful registration effort that draws more Latinos to the polls will bear fruit within the next few years, even in 2012, Jayapal said.
“Anyone who thinks it will take eight years for dramatic change is missing the boat,” she said.
Whitman College political science professor Paul Apostolidis, who has spent years studying voting in the Yakima area and the role of majority-minority districts in improving civic engagement among minorities, applauded the new district.
He said he believes the majority-minority district would lead to a more inclusive society. But the success will depend on mobilizing Latino residents to register and participate.
Latinos, Apostolidis said, have been drastically underrepresented in local and state elections. A greater opportunity for minority candidates to win elections will inspire more people to participate, he said.
“Candidates will think more seriously about getting into the race. They are seen as more viable and can attract more contributions,” he said. “Those factors come together to create higher representation.”
“It will take some time,” Apostolidis added. “It is not the type of thing you are likely to see political results that jump off the page in 2014. Over the next decade you will see change. That is all for the good.”
Voter turnout among Latinos is difficult to gauge, but it is low by some measures. For example, Yakima County elections officials say that only 20,257 of the county’s 100,212 registered voters have Latino surnames.
PubliCola, a blog by Seattle journalists, estimates that only 47 percent of the Latinos in the new district are of voting age.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who has represented the 15th District since 1994, expressed disappointment that the new lines move up to 100,000 people into a different district.
Also from the 15th District, Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said establishing a legislative district with one minority group — Latinos — in mind sets a troubling precedent.
“The thing I’m concerned about is the commission designated one minority group and other minority groups were treated as being less worthy,” Chandler said. “I think the long-term consequences remain to be seen where one minority group is given preference over all other minorities.”
He also challenged the notion that Latinos would vote as a group.
“The Hispanic community is one of the more diverse in terms of minority communities. It is a very diverse group of people who have conservative social values,” he said. “To assume that by segregating a group into one district will predetermine the outcome of an election is wrong. They are far too independent minded to go along with that.”
Jesse Palacios of Grandview, a city council member and former county commissioner, expressed some pessimism that participation by Latinos and all district residents will improve dramatically.
“The jury is still out on their efforts. How many groups have come and gone who have worked to register and to get them out to vote?” he asked. “I’d be surprised if the percentage increases.”
If the new district boundaries signal that incumbents could face more credible challenges from Latino candidates, 14th District incumbents — while having a larger district to cover — are likely pretty safe under the new lines.
For example, with Selah now part of the 15th, political newcomer and tea party conservative Michele Strobel, who mounted a strong challenge to Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, two years ago, would likely face long odds to electoral victory in the Latino-majority district.
* David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org