#parent | #kids | After redistricting rancor, Republicans maintain hold on Yakima Valley legislative districts | Local

Central Washington voters elected the area’s first Latina state senator, turned away some new hopefuls looking to represent their community, and returned a swath of incumbent lawmakers to office this past week.

The results give a glimpse at how Yakima Valley communities are represented within new legislative voting boundaries, where discussions about political participation and voting rights, especially for Latino and Indigenous voters, are ongoing.

Voting rights are not a new issue in the Yakima Valley’s legislative 14th and 15th districts. Two lawsuits are pending over the new 15th District, which was a sticking point during statewide redistricting conversations earlier this year.

The city of Yakima and Yakima County both faced voting rights lawsuits in the past decade alleging the election systems disenfranchised Latino voters, and made changes as a result.

Discussions about voter participation and turnout are also not new.

Yakima County, which had the lowest turnout rate in Washington in the primary, had an overall turnout of about 50% as of Thursday. Turnout among voters with Spanish surnames was 26% countywide, according to Martha Jiménez, bilingual program analyst with Yakima County Elections.

First-time voters, community organizations react to Latino turnout in Yakima County

Election takeaways from local candidates and political experts highlight both the successes and challenges in the Valley’s new legislative districts.

Latina candidate elected

Republican Nikki Torres of Pasco sees her election night success of being the first Latina state senator elected to represent Central Washington in District 15 as a win for Latino representation. She won about 70% of the vote in the district.

“It’s about time,” she said on election night. “It’s about time we have some Latino representation for Central Washington … (U.S.) Census data shows we are the minority majority in this district.”

With a Latino voter majority of 50.02% and an overall minority voter population of 55.05%, District 15 was a focus area for outreach to Latino voters, something Torres concentrated on in the lead-up to the election. The district splits Yakima and Pasco, covers parts of five counties and leans Republican, according to data from the state’s redistricting commission, which updated voting boundaries in 2021.

“A lot of (outreach) to Latinos was to focus on getting them out to vote. You have to meet people where they live, and meet them during odd hours, in the evenings and on weekends when they’re home. A lot of people are working hard at multiple jobs,” Torres said.

Torres replaces longtime Republican incumbent Jim Honeyford, who withdrew from the race before the primary and endorsed Torres.

Torres’ outreach

The Thursday before the election, Torres and Felix Vargas, her campaign director, set out to canvass a neighborhood off of Main Street in Union Gap near Union Gap School, reminding folks to return their ballots and listening to their top concerns.

Using an app on her campaign phone, Torres could see who in the neighborhood was registered to vote and who had already returned their ballot.

“It’s Latino-focused, and also an area where people don’t turn out,” she said.

Many knocks went unanswered during the noon hour — a time when many folks are at work or otherwise away from home, Torres said — but she left behind bilingual pamphlets that reiterated voting deadlines and included a list of her campaign priorities.

At homes with doorbell cameras, she introduced herself and asked people to vote and vote for her in recorded messages.

Residents who did come to the door shared concerns about inflation, rising costs and other economic issues, along with concerns about crime and general safety.

In Spanish, Torres asked one woman who hadn’t yet returned her ballot what issues would motivate her to vote.

“Prices are so high,” the woman responded, also in Spanish. “Gas prices, everything is so expensive.”

After exhausting the list of registered voters in the neighborhood, Torres and Vargas paid a visit to Felipe Hernández and Rachel Wilburn of Los Hernández Tamales. Over a plate of piping hot tamales, Torres listened as the two explained how more outreach from political leaders could help Latino business owners better navigate complex regulations at both the state and federal level.

Torres said she personally knocked on 1,200 doors across the district ahead of the general election, and she also had volunteers canvassing in Othello and the Yakima area.

“I was trying to build relationships, and I think that’s more important than debates,” she said. “Political debates aren’t very helpful to regular voters, who don’t have time to participate or see them.”

Choice in candidates

While Torres’ campaign was historic, some voting rights advocates still see the district falling short when it comes to Latino representation.

Matt Barreto, a voting rights expert and political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and former University of Washington faculty member, said the results of the election clearly show that Latino voters in the Yakima Valley cannot elect their candidate of choice, which he says is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

“That’s what the Voting Rights Act asks of states and political scientists, to our experts and anyone else: Can the data show that this minority group is cohesive and has a candidate of choice?” Barreto said.

During the redistricting process, Barreto was hired by Senate Democrats to weigh in on the Yakima Valley District 15. Barreto published an analysis saying the district failed to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act and would likely not withstand a legal challenge.

After the commissioners finalized the maps, two opposing lawsuits have been filed over voting boundaries in District 15. One alleges the new district intentionally dilutes the voice of Latino voters, while the other alleges the boundaries constitute illegal racial gerrymandering.

Barreto has no connection to the lawsuits and shared his take on the latest election results as a political analyst and professor.

He said early election data demonstrates that there are candidates of choice for Latino voters in central and eastern Washington — Latino voters were cohesive as a group, voting together at a two-to-one margin, he said — but the candidates they selected were not the ones elected.

That is the case in District 15, where Democrat Lindsey Keesling, who is not Hispanic, was the candidate of choice for Latino voters, according to an analysis by Barreto.

His analysis looks at election results in individual voting precincts, small pieces of the electorate that are geographically bound and each include at most 1,500 voters.

The analysis correlates the percent of voters in the precinct that are white or Hispanic and the percent of the vote won by each candidate, Barreto said. If there is no correlation between the demographic of the voters and the candidate percentage, there is no preferred candidate, he explained.

Barreto said a copy of the analysis would be provided once election results are finalized.

“The Voting Rights Act doesn’t guarantee the race or ethnicity of the candidate, Black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. It guarantees that the voters have a chance to choose who they want,” he said. “I looked across precincts in Adams, Benton, Franklin (counties) and even in parts of Yakima, and overwhelmingly Keesling was supported in those Hispanic districts.”

Barreto said there was a similar outcome in District 14, which includes the Yakama Reservation, the western part of Yakima County and all of Klickitat County. There, Hispanic-preferred candidate Laurene Contreras lost to incumbent Chris Corry, who was preferred by white voters, Barreto said. Corry is a Republican, and Contreras listed no party affiliation.

Barreto said those discrepancies are evidence that the map splits Latino voting power in the Yakima Valley.

Local reactions

Yakima Valley incumbent Rep. Jeremie Dufault, a Selah Republican who currently represents District 15 in the state House, disagreed with that assessment. He said the majority-Latino district continues to prefer Republican candidates, like Torres, because of aligning values, including faith, family and entrepreneurship.

Dufault was displaced under the new map, and therefore didn’t run for reelection. He’ll be replaced by Republican Bryan Sandlin of Zillah, who ran unopposed for the seat. Sandlin is the operations manager for Highland Fruit Growers and has a background in the farming and the fruit packing business.

“The redistricting commission fractured a once-cohesive district by replacing two areas of fast-growing Latino populations (Selah and East Valley) with disconnected parts of four other counties. It was a failed effort to create a Democrat-friendly district,” Dufault said in an email Friday.

Corry, who believes the redistricting commission’s maps are legal, said he’s curious about how conversations about partisanship will play out following this first election cycle under the new boundaries.

“I think that it’s important to have Latino voters engaged,” he said. “I’m hearing from a lot of them now, and a lot of the ones that I’ve talked to are not happy with what the state is doing right now in a lot of ways.”

Corry said he, too, sees shared values with the Latino community.

“When I’ve talked to these families, they tend to be more conservative,” he said. “Whether they would call themselves Republicans or not, I don’t know, but they share similar values that the rest of us in the Valley share, right? They want to own a home, they want their kids to go to a good school, they want, you know, good family values in our community.”

Reservation and redistricting

Latino representation in the Yakima Valley and unification of the Yakama Nation into a single legislative district were both key points of discussion for the state’s bipartisan commission during the process of redistricting.

Corry won about 67% of the vote in the district, compared to Contreras’ 33%.

Contreras, an enrolled Yakama member, said she considers the Yakama Reservation a primary area that is central to District 14, but parts of the community were still split apart.

“They didn’t necessarily keep the reservation together,” she said. “You have reservation from White Swan clear down to Mabton and Toppenish. I live in Toppenish, and there are parts of Toppenish that are in District 15 and not 14. So I don’t believe that it was fair (the way) redistricting was applied.”

Contreras said navigating the new boundaries was a frustrating feat as a candidate.

“I’ll be honest with you, when I filed I honestly thought that I was going to qualify to, you know, campaign in District 15, and then when my address popped up, it showed that I’m in 14,” she said. “I do not have a political background. I’m not a seasoned political candidate. So as I was going into this campaign, basically I had to search a number of different search engines to even determine which zip codes were in my district.”

She also sorted through various maps before finding one that clearly defined the district.

“I don’t feel that I should have to be questioning, I mean, when you’re campaigning, those districts should have been clearly outlined, and, you know, to me, it just seemed like it was a big secret,” she said.

That, along with the split in the Yakama community, was frustrating, she said. Overall, she wasn’t surprised with the election results or turnout rates in the district.

“There’s even low voter turnout, even within our tribal membership,” she said. “But, you know, it is a concern because of the redistricting. It in a way compromises the ability for the minority population to actually become fully engaged with participation within the district.”

Corry also wasn’t surprised by turnout rates — Yakima is usually on the low end, he said — but he has seen an impact of including most of the reservation in a single district.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen is that the tribe has had a good focus on working with Gina (Mosbrucker) and myself,” he said. “Because we’ve had some boundary changes … really our job is now to get to know everybody in the new parts, right, so that they can know who they can go to when they have problems and how we can work on stuff.”

Outreach in District 14

Corry and Contreras both focused their voter outreach to various community events leading up to the primary and general elections.

“I’ve been working with some people in the newer parts of my district that are more Latino to figure out ways that I can engage with them more, and obviously, I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Corry said. “That’ll grow as we move forward.”

Meeting with local community leaders was another strategy for Corry.

Contreras said she would set up a table at community events and speak with people about voting and any other concerns.

“While out at community events, I’m the type of person that, you know, I don’t want to be overbearing, so I would just talk to people … about issues going on, or ‘Are you a voter?’ and ‘Are you gonna get out and vote?’” Contreras said. “I heard a little bit of everything.”

Many community members were concerned about access to services, especially internet, as well as safety, high taxes and general welfare, she said.

“It is a concern, you know,” Contreras said. “We need better services.”

She said the campaign was positive even though she was not elected.

“Of course, nobody likes to lose, you know, but that’s just the reality within District 14,” she said. “If you look at everyone that represents within this district, it’s Republicans so, you know, for me, just to step out there as an independent, to put my name out there, to want to serve, I think this is just the beginning of things going forward.”

Other challenges

That “reality” described by Contreras is one of the things that stuck out to Barreto, the voting rights analyst. He said the vote splits in these districts further illustrate that Latino candidates of choice won’t be elected.

“If you’re in a voting system in which your candidate loses 65% to 35% every single time, then your vote is irrelevant,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you vote because the other side is going to out vote you by a two-to-one margin.”

Voters also can’t elect a candidate of choice if there is no choice. The two candidates for House seats in District 15 were unopposed in the general election. Torres was unopposed until Keesling qualified as a write-in candidate during the primary.

Barreto said it’s difficult to hire staff and run a campaign in a district where the winner is predetermined or where outcomes aren’t fair.

“People in this region have seen these districts be drawn against their interest for two decades now, and as a result, it’s sad, but it doesn’t surprise me as a political science professor that someone would look at District 14 or District 15 and say, well, our community doesn’t really stand a chance so we’re not going to even field a candidate,” he said.

Corry said he was surprised by the lack of opposition in District 15.

“I thought that there would be some more people in the new district,” he said. “It’s a tough district. I mean, it has, you know, multiple counties … it’s a lot of groundwork.”

He said the uncertainty cast on the district from the lawsuits may also be a factor.

“I think we’ll continue to see more engagement, more people getting involved,” moving forward, he said.

What might success look like?

Mark Figueroa is an organizer with Poder Latinx, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to increase voter outreach and education in the Latino community. He led canvassing and door knocking efforts in the Tri-Cities and District 15 to empower voters.

“It would be pointless having a Latino majority district if people don’t vote,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge those gaps between communities.”

He said the goal is equitable representation.

“We want to see candidates who reflect the community,” he said. “Where you get most impacted is local elections. People aren’t informed when those come around.”

As Poder Latinx and other organizations reach out to Latino voters to increase community participation in local elections, what might success look like?

Barreto said success is having a fair and equal opportunity to elect a candidate of choice.

“Success means that minority voters — or any voter, all voters, regardless of their race or ethnicity — have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, that they’re not always on the losing side,” he said.

Corry said increased turnout is one marker of success.

“Beyond that, I would like to see more engagement, and I’m starting to see that from some different groups,” Corry said. “I want our Latino voters to be, you know, advocating on their issues, knowing where they can go if they need help. It doesn’t always have to go through a particular group, I want them to come directly.”

Contreras said success boils down to communication.

“Just keep making those contacts and networking with both Native and Hispanic voters and just remaining consistent,” she said. “Persevere through it to get (a) continued increase in participation.”

A big part of her campaign has been encouraging people to vote, sharing that their voice counts, she said.

“I personally experienced, a family member, she was an elder and she said, ‘Well, I’ve never registered to vote, but you’re running so I’m gonna register and I’m gonna vote for you.’ That was huge,” Contreras said. “If you can even get one person to get registered to vote, it’s an improvement.”

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen, Santiago Ochoa and Joel Donofrio contributed to this report.

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