Why Can't This Man Win The Northwest's Most Hispanic District?
At the Northwest’s three state capitals, only a handful of Latinos hold state office. That’s according to a database of the region’s elected officials we’ve assembled. But this year, Latino voters have an edge for the first time in one of the Northwest’s major Hispanic hubs. Redistricting gave them a majority. You might think the Latino candidate there would now be a shoo-in. Not so.
The restaurant El Ranchito is a popular meeting place in Zillah, Wash. In the back, Ricardo Gonzalez pounds and twists dough into horn shaped pastries called “cuernitos” from his native Michoacan, Mexico.
Gonzalez has lived here for the last 13 years. He’s part of a boom in the Yakima Valley’s Latino population. And though it’s visible in local food and music, Gonzalez says he hasn’t seen it in local politics.
"It’s very important that we have voices in high places," says Gonzalez through an interpreter. "People who can represent and support the Hispanic community."
Gonzalez nods toward a 21-year-old wearing a tie.
"And now here we see it -- a young Hispanic running for office."
The guy he’s nodding at, the one who brought me to this restaurant, is Pablo Gonzalez -- no relation to Ricardo. He’s the Democratic candidate for the state House. He’s also a college student, and the only Latino to run in this newly majority Hispanic district.
“I couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste and not have someone running for office in the first majority-minority district.”
“Majority-minority” is the term for districts where minorities are more than half of the population.
“These used to be bars and stuff that just went out of business.”
Gonzalez walks through downtown Sunnyside, Wash., a city that’s been plagued with gang violence, high dropout rates and rising poverty. It’s also 80 percent Latino.
Gonzalez is the son of immigrant fruit pickers from Mexico who struggled to gain U.S. citizenship. He says he can do a better job representing this district better than the Republican incumbent, David Taylor.
“It’s not just because of the color of my skin or my name," Gonzalez says. "It’s more because the experiences I’ve experienced are totally different than the people who are in office right now.”
Yet despite the majority Latino population in this newly drawn district, Gonzalez, by most accounts, is expected to lose. Washington’s top-two primary system provided a preview of the general election – and Gonzalez received 30 percent to his opponent’s 70.
“I think the election just more than proved our point. That we had good candidates, period.” says Max Golladay, the chair of the Yakima County Republican Party. “I don’t know what the proponents of this minority-majority racist division was hoping to accomplish, but I think they were a roaring failure.”
In fact, this isn’t the only majority Latino district in the Northwest that will likely be represented by a non-Hispanic for the foreseeable future. Democrat Betty Komp holds the Oregon House seat in the Woodburn area. Washington Congressman Adam Smith, also a Democrat, faced no minority opponents in his newly majority-minority district this year.
This raises the question: Do majority-minority districts actually put more minorities in office?
“There is quite a consensus. There has been reams of research on this issue since the 1970s,” says Paul Apostolidis, a political science professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
And the conclusion is: Yes, they do. Eventually.
Right now, less than a third of this district’s registered voters are Hispanic. But if we were to jump ahead, say 10 years from now, when the 21-year-old candidate Gonzalez would be 31, the race might look very different.
“When people have more of a sense that if I vote it can really make a difference, candidates pick up on this, more candidates start to run," Apostolidis says. "And what you do is you start to change a dynamic that has been historically embedded where minorities feel excluded and are excluded from public office.”
A group of Latino activists in Idaho last year lobbied for majority-minority districts. The idea didn’t get far.
But here’s the twist. The Northwest actually has two Hispanic members of Congress. Yes, two. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington. They’re both Republican, and they both represent majority white districts. Labrador, who’s Puerto Rican, says don’t assume minority voters can only be represented by minorities.
“I don’t think it matters," he says. "Because then it would be important for people in the state of Idaho to have representatives who look like them. And I don’t. You know, if it’s racism one way, why isn’t it racism the other way?”
As for Pablo Gonzalez, he’s gearing up for November. He’s running Spanish-language TV ads to explain the voting process. And Gonzalez is adjusting his strategy. He’s making English-language ads touting his conservative side to appeal to the white, Republican voters in his district.
On the Web:
Map: Northwest Latino Elected Official Database by State - Click on each state to see its Latino population in 2011 along with estimates of Hispanic elected officials. The database counted Hispanic surnames among members of Congress, state officials, county commissioners, city councilors, mayor and school board members. Source: Northwest News Network.
Map: Northwest Latino Elected Official Database By County - Click on each county to see its Latino population in 2011 along with estimates of Hispanic elected officials. Darker colors indicate a larger share of population. The database counted Hispanic surnames among county commissioners, city councilors, mayor and school board members. Source: Northwest News Network.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network