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Originally published Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 9:49 PM

In Yakima, other areas, growing Latino population invisible politically

As the state's Latino population has surged, political representation has not kept pace. In Yakima, where Hispanics now account for more than 41 percent of the population, none has ever been elected to the city council. Statewide, just three of Washington's 147 state legislators are Hispanic, and there are no Hispanics in statewide elected offices.

Seattle Times political reporter

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YAKIMA — Over the past decade, the swelling Latino population in this fruit-growing valley has been reflected in everything from popular Mexican radio stations to the largest Cinco de Mayo festivals in the state, and even a visit from the president of Mexico.

But there is one place that has remained relatively unchanged by the demographic tide: Yakima City Hall.

Even though Hispanics account for more than 41 percent of the city's population, none has been elected to the seven-member City Council.

It's a striking void that has been seized on by some activists and civil-rights groups backing a lawsuit and an initiative to change the way the City Council is elected. But Yakima is by no means alone.

Hispanics were the fastest-growing group in Washington over the last 10 years, booming by 71 percent, according to the 2010 census. They now comprise more than 11 percent of the state's 6.7 million residents and are a majority in two Eastern Washington counties, Adams and Franklin.

But political representation has not kept pace, whether due to racial bias, the citizenship status of some immigrants, a lack of Latino candidates or the fact that some who have run were perceived as liberal in conservative-dominated communities.

Last year, the state sent its first Hispanic representative to Congress, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents Southwest Washington. But just three of Washington's 147 state legislators are Hispanic — none in Eastern Washington — and there are no Hispanics in statewide elected offices.

A Whitman College study found Latinos "dramatically underrepresented" in the 10 counties where they are the highest percentage of the population. Of 1,891 local elected offices in those counties — from city councils to cemetery-district boards — only 78 were held by Latinos, as of December 2009. That's just 4.1 percent in counties where the Latino population ranged from 15 to 55 percent, noted Paul Apostolidis, the political-science professor who supervised the student-run research.

"The stark reality is, there is hardly any Latino representation in many jurisdictions," said Joaquin Avila, executive director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University's law school. "Eastern Washington reminds me of Texas back in the 1970s in terms of access to the political process for Latinos, so we've got our work cut out for us."

Concern over the political underrepresentation of Hispanics is rising this year as the state wrestles with redrawing its congressional and state legislative districts based on the 2010 census.

In Yakima, some argue racial bias and flawed political maps prevent well-qualified Hispanic candidates from getting elected.

"Candidate after candidate have crashed and burned," said Tony Sandoval, a local businessman, who blames anti-immigrant sentiment in the area.

Sandoval is suing to force a change in Yakima's council-election system, which requires all candidates to run citywide in the general election. A properly drawn district system, Sandoval contends, would guarantee the election of one or two Latino council members.

Yakima leaders say Sandoval's rap is unfair. They say voters here have no problem electing candidates of any ethnicity — so long as they are conservative enough. They point, for example, to the late Mary Skinner, a Republican who served as the area's first Hispanic state lawmaker before her death in 2009.

"It comes down to political philosophy in this town," said Yakima Mayor Micah Cawley, 26.

Candidate falls short

By some accounts, Sonia Rodriguez True should have had a good shot at becoming the first Hispanic elected to a seat on the Yakima City Council.

A successful family-law attorney, Rodriguez True was appointed to fill a council vacancy in January 2009. Over the next several months, she won praise for leading the council to write a new ethics code and beef up police funding after a rash of gang violence.

Her fall election opponent, conservative radio host Dave Ettl, was sidelined by a roller-skating injury and skipped much traditional campaigning, boasting of being an "uncandidate." The Yakima Herald-Republic disclosed Ettl's 2003 drunken-driving arrest, and the paper's editorial board endorsed Rodriguez True.

After the votes were tallied, it was Ettl taking the oath of office.

Ettl said Yakima voters knew him after 30 years in local TV and radio. He said there was a backlash against Rodriguez True, who had been appointed to the council seat out of "well-meaning tokenism," even though there were more qualified applicants, including himself.

Rodriguez True said she doesn't believe Yakima voters are racist, "but you start to look at why did I lose? Obviously, race comes into play as some kind of factor."

However, Rodriguez True cautioned that this goes both ways: "You could talk about the non-Latinos, but the Latino community also has its own issues about whether we're exercising our political power."

An analysis of Rodriguez True's loss shows her election split along racial lines. She easily won the Latino-dominated precincts on the east side of Yakima, but lost most of the majority-white west side neighborhoods.

That finding, by the Seattle-based nonprofit Win/Win Network, has been cited by activists and voting-rights experts who say council and legislative districts should be redrawn in the Yakima area to give Latinos more clout.

Ettl called that idea nonsense. Before 2009, when both Rodriguez True and former school superintendent Ben Soria lost, it had been decades since Latino candidates had even run for the council, he said.

"You've got to run to win," he said.

The federal Voting Rights Act says states should redraw political districts if there is evidence that racially polarized voting and unfair district lines have prevented a particular ethnic minority group from electing its preferred candidates.

Avila, the Seattle University expert on national voting rights, has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in arguing that's the case in the Yakima area. The ACLU has backed changes to the City Council and legislative districts in Yakima to give Latinos a better chance of being elected.

Challenges to system

An initiative on the fall ballot will determine whether all Yakima City Council members should be elected solely by districts. Currently, four of the seven council members ostensibly represent the districts where they run in the primary — but they are all elected citywide in the general election.

Sandoval's lawsuit in Yakima County Superior Court also would create district elections for council members. He and some other local Latinos say they don't feel represented by the current City Council and have complained about a community pool closure.

"You don't have anybody who will speak on behalf of the immigrant community," said Rogelio Montes, another local activist who plans to run for the council. "There also is some racism. They don't say it in the open, but it's how we feel."

Sandoval and Montes pointed to a flap this year over a gift to Yakima from the Mexican government: a 2-foot-tall bust of Jose Maria Morelos, a hero in Mexico's war of independence. Yakima's sister city of Morelia, Mexico, is named after him.

The gift briefly became controversial, with some anti-illegal-immigrant activists arguing it should be rejected and the council debating whether it should be displayed in a prominent location. The bust was eventually accepted, but Sandoval called the flap embarrassing. "It's a gift."

Others don't think bias is to blame for the lag in Hispanic political power.

Albert Torres, publisher of Tu Decides, a Tri-Cities-based bilingual newspaper, said the lack of Hispanic political representation in Washington is problematic. But, he said, "I don't think it's racism. I think the problems are deeper than that, and it's an easy out."

The Hispanic population tends to be younger and poorer, and even those who are eligible vote at lower rates, national studies show.

Of the 100,460 registered voters in Yakima County, 20,368 have Latino surnames, said Yakima County elections manager Kathy Fisher. The county began tracking that statistic after coming under a U.S. Justice Department consent decree in 2004 to increase ballot access for Spanish-speaking residents.

Raymond Navarro, who was appointed to the Yakima School Board but lost when he ran for a full term in 2009, said he doesn't blame racial prejudice for the dearth of Latino political representation in his town. He pointed to Henry Beauchamp, a revered local African-American leader who served many years as a Yakima city councilman and mayor, starting in 1977.

Navarro said the Yakima-area Latino community is sometimes split into warring factions — with two rival Hispanic chambers of commerce, for example. "When it comes to race, I think the Latino population is their own worst enemy," he said.

In the current political reality, local Latinos would enjoy more success by fielding more-conservative candidates, Navarro said.

"Yakima is a conservative community," he said. While many Latinos hold conservative family values, he said "they align themselves with the Democratic Party."

That's certainly true nationally. In the 2010 election, 65 percent of registered Latino voters identified as Democrats, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Jesse Palacios, a former Yakima County commissioner and current Grandview City Council member, said his three-decade-long political career has been possible because he's known as a Republican.

"One of the reasons I've been elected is that I don't just want to represent a particular group. I want to represent everyone," Palacios said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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