YAKIMA — Ask Yakima Valley residents interested in state politics what they think of the state’s 15th Legislative District and you’ll get a mix of opinions.
Controversy over the district erupted as the state’s redistricting commission finalized its maps in 2021. The state was sued over it. Over the past few weeks, the governor and legislative leaders have weighed in about whether lawmakers should get involved in redrawing boundaries or have a court do it.
The debate centers on Latino representation in Central Washington.
The new District 15, which includes parts of Yakima, Grant, Benton, Franklin and Adams counties, has a Latino voter population of 50.02% and an overall minority voter population of 55.05%, according to population breakdowns provided by the commission.
In the Yakima Valley, District 15 includes parts of the city of Yakima, as well as Sunnyside, Grandview, Othello, Mattawa and Pasco. It is represented by Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, in the state Senate and Bryan Sandlin, R-Zillah, and Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, in the House.
A group including former Yakima County Commission candidate Susan Soto Palmer, the Campaign Legal Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and others filed a lawsuit contending that District 15 split up Latino voters in the Yakima Valley, violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In drawing the new maps, the redistricting commission tried not to split up the Yakama Reservation, which falls in District 14. The reservation had been split on previous maps.
In the meantime, local organizers and advocates argue that residents across District 15 should be better informed about the changes and decisions taking place.
The lay of the land
The Soto Palmer lawsuit argued that historical discrimination, current barriers to voting and dividing these Yakima Valley communities make it harder for its large Latino community to elect its preferred candidates and gain representation.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik, who ordered the boundaries redrawn, gave the state until Feb. 7 to do so. Lasnik said the Legislature could vote to reconvene the redistricting commission to create new boundaries.
The Legislature is out of session and can only be called back by the governor or by lawmakers. Gov. Jay Inslee said he would not call lawmakers back, though they could do it on their own. While Republican leadership supports a special session, Democratic leaders said they support the court making the decision and will not call a special session.
If the Legislature doesn’t act, Lasnik said the court would intervene to make sure the new district is in place for the 2024 election.
The new district faced two legal challenges. Another lawsuit filed by conservative-leaning Yakima Valley resident Benancio Garcia argued the new district is an “illegal racial gerrymander.” A three-judge panel dismissed the case in a 2-1 decision earlier this month, ruling it was moot given the court’s decision in the Soto Palmer case.
Reactions to the court decisions in the Yakima Valley have been mixed. State lawmakers and Yakima Valley residents are debating the best way to redraw those boundaries and create opportunities for increased Latino representation.
While some see the debate in starkly partisan terms, in reality Yakima Valley politics can be more nuanced.
Torres, the new District 15 senator, said she plans to continue with her work but is concerned that she could be left out if Pasco is excluded from a redrawn district. In an interview, Torres agreed that representation for the Latino community in Olympia is important and she advocated for increased voter participation, rather than new district lines.
“I was a farmworker myself,” Torres said. “I’m somebody that looks like the community, that is part of the community, that is representative of the community. … I am part of the community. I’m a first-generation Latina.”
Lasnik’s decision noted that Torres’ campaign shows Latina candidates can be successful in the district, but said there’s evidence of “the existence of white voter antipathy toward Latino candidates” that created further challenges.
A group of elected officials and community leaders gathered Thursday in Grandview to speak out about the redistricting debate. They included Gloria Mendoza, Grandview’s incumbent mayor.
Mendoza also worried Torres would be drawn out of District 15. She praised the state senator’s attention to Grandview, as well as her Spanish language and communication skills.
“It is always great when you’re able to go anywhere and talk to anyone,” Mendoza said.
Mike Gonzalez, Washington state commissioner on Hispanic affairs, Moses Lake Deputy Mayor Deanna Martinez, and Maia Espinoza, executive director for the Center for Latino Leadership, also spoke.
They praised Torres and brought more concerns, arguing that redrawing District 15 could affect neighboring districts. Martinez, who lives in Moses Lake and the 13th Legislative District, was also concerned about the decision-making process.
“To have a judge who lives on the west side making this decision is not appropriate,” Martinez said.
Other Yakima Valley residents greeted the court’s role more positively.
“I think it’s fantastic that we finally got it in front of a judge,” Bengie Aguilar said in an interview. “It’s been unjust.”
Aguilar is a former Cty Council member in Sunnyside and lost a race for the District 15 Senate seat in 2018, running as a Democrat. She hopes a new map in District 15 would produce representatives and senators who better represent the region.
“I feel like forever we’ve had people in play that represent their constituents and not the community,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar is concerned that District 15 as currently drawn would make it difficult for Latino candidates to challenge established politicians. Jim Honeyford, who retired as District 15 senator in January, and Chandler, one of District 15’s representatives, each spent more than 20 years in the Legislature.
Honeyford did not run in 2022, stepping aside when Torres filed. Aguilar said she was happy Torres, a Latina, is serving as a senator.
“I have hope for her,” Aguilar said.
Debating next steps
Torres questioned the need for changing the boundaries at all and joined with state Republicans in calling for the redistricting commission to take over.
“The commission should be called back to do their job,” Torres said. “It shouldn’t be punted off to a judge.”
The redistricting commission is a nonpartisan body tasked with drawing fair boundaries. That commission drew the District 15 boundaries in 2021 during a fraught process.
Conservatives argue that the redistricting commission is still the best way to draw boundaries and stay accountable to the public. A joint statement from House Republican Deputy Leader Mike Steele and Senate Republican Leader John Braun called it “a process that provides a level of transparency the public deserves.”
Democratic lawmakers disagreed, arguing that the fastest and fairest way forward is through the courts. The U.S. District Court can make sure the new maps meet the conditions of the Voting Rights Act from the start, they argued.
“The bipartisan Redistricting Commission failed to draw a legislative map that complied with the federal VRA. We support voters seeking justice in a forum where it has already been achieved, devoid of partisanship and gamesmanship,” read a statement from Washington’s Latino Democratic Caucus. “We do not support reconvening the Redistricting Commission.”
Lasnik’s decision said multiple realistic and representative maps were put forward during the lawsuit.
“It’s up to these folks to go back and look at what work has been done,” Aguilar said.
People need to know
Maria Fernandez is the executive director of Empowering Latina Leadership and Action, a nonprofit based in the Lower Yakima Valley that focuses on community representation and empowerment.
Her biggest concern is that residents who might be affected by this decision are in the dark.
“What’s lacking right now in the Lower Valley is basic awareness of these changes,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez added that ELLA is engaged in get-out-the vote efforts in Sunnyside, Mabton and Grandview and she would collaborate with officials to get redistricting information to people, regardless of which path redistricting takes.
Espinoza made a similar call for listening tours in districts that will be affected and suggested reaching out to churches, municipal elected officials and local nonprofits.
People should know about the redistricting decisions and outcomes that affect them, Fernandez said.