New boundaries could give 15th District Latino majority

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OLYMPIA — East Clark County could find itself as part of Washington’s first “majority-minority” legislative district under a statewide redistricting proposal released last week.

The proposal, whose new boundaries for the 15th Legislative District would give Hispanic voters more clout, has raised the eyebrows of at least one Clark County observer.

“Certainly I’m in favor of a minority-majority for the Yakima district, since they have a high population of Latinos living there,” said Ed Cote, Democratic national committeeman from Vancouver. “I’m not sure that’s true for eastern Clark County.”

While 45 percent of Yakima County’s residents are Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census, the proportion in all of Clark County is only 7.6 percent.

Cote said he felt eastern Clark County residents were being inadequately represented.

The bipartisan redistricting commission was charged with shaping state legislative districts with the target population of 137,236. The 15th District, which has represented Skamania County and part of Clark County since 2002, is currently 4,448 short of the target.

One plan proposed by Republican Redistricting Commissioner Slade Gorton brings the 15th District closer to the target by stretching the boundaries up to the city of Yakima, where a large Latino population resides. The former U.S. Senator’s plan would give the historically Republican district a Hispanic majority. Gorton said he drew the district to reflect the public input received at 18 meetings held around the state.

“This includes the creation of … the state’s first majority-Hispanic legislative district — a major and consistent theme we heard from the public,” he said.

Alternatively, Democratic Redistricting Commissioner Tim Ceis’s plan would take Clark and Skamania counties out of the 15th District, giving the 15th District a 55 percent Hispanic majority.

While the plans are only drafts, Lillian Ortiz-Self, chair of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said they offered fairness to the Hispanic community, which sometimes struggles to be heard.

“Especially in Eastern Washington and the Yakima area, they don’t always get adequate representation. By redistricting, that will hopefully change,” she said.

Historically GOP

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who has been the senator for the 15th District since 1999, said the Hispanic community has been fairly represented by Hispanics in office. He said he thinks a majority-minority district would be premature.

“Right now, as I understand, the 15th District is 48 percent Hispanic, so I do think it’s a little premature. Well, I’d call it gerrymandering,” Honeyford said, concerned that the change might alter the district’s party preference.

“My concern is that it goes into southeast Yakima, which is a poorer part of town and is high in minorities. Historically, the 15th District has been Republican, and I’d like to see it stay that way,” he said.

Ortiz-Self did not think a Hispanic majority would necessarily change the district’s party alignment, since earning the Hispanic vote is not as simple as it used to be.

“The Latino community is being split in half more and more. They’re swayed by who will listen to their voice,” Ortiz-Self said.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, agreed with Ortiz-Self, saying that to assume the Hispanic community would vote Democratic was presumptuous. “It’s demeaning to the Hispanic community to suggest there’s only one way they can vote,” Chandler said.

Far from home

When looking at redistricting, Cote said he tried not to be partisan and was more concerned about the community interests of Clark County, which he said were not adequately represented in the 15th District.

“The district is anchored in Yakima, which has an agricultural interest, and we’re much more of a metropolitan area,” Cote said.

Honeyford agreed that Clark County’s interests are different, but Chandler disagreed, saying the part of Clark County in the 15th District is mostly rural.

“What we have in common is, it’s a pretty rural area … there are also issues that affect them regarding the Columbia River, which are common to our whole district,” Chandler said.

If Clark County residents do have an opinion to share, though, they may have trouble reaching their legislators, since all three currently live in east Yakima County. The nearest is Chandler, who is separated from his constituents in Clark County by about 160 miles.

“If you want to be active in your legislature, you literally have to drive to Yakima,” Cote said.

Chandler and Honeyford agreed it is difficult to communicate with Clark County, though that is made easier with the use of the Internet.

“We work hard to be accessible,” Chandler said. “There are some logistical problems, but people in east Clark County are very adept with the Internet. It has helped improve communication.”

The next step of the redistricting process is for the public to weigh in online at the commission’s website and at a public hearing Oct. 11 in Olympia.

“It’s a hearing people can participate in no matter where they are,” Chandler said. “I encourage people to participate in that.”

Estelle Gwinn: 360-754-5427.