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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 9:14 AM

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In new WA Latino district, a search for candidates

In the newly created eastern Washington legislative district where Latinos are the majority of the constituents, so far only one Latino candidate has declared a run for public office. And he's a 21-year-old college student.

Associated Press

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SEATTLE —

In the newly created eastern Washington legislative district where Latinos are the majority of the constituents, so far only one Latino candidate has declared a run for public office. And he's a 21-year-old college student.

While Pablo Gonzalez is confident he can mount a challenge against a Republican state representative, the Central Washington University student has only $469.54 in the bank for the race.

"There hasn't been anybody that has come out and tried to help the Latino community," said Gonzalez, a Democrat who is also running to be student president at his college. "This would be a good opportunity to try to better our future."

With a month left until the candidate filing deadline, the other Republican representative and state senator in the new district remain unchallenged and, besides Gonzalez, no other Latino has made a bid for the state Legislature.

And many of the groups that pushed for the 15th district's creation in Yakima County have not recruited candidates.

The newly drawn minority-majority legislative districts aren't likely to bring in discernible changes to the state's politics immediately, but are the foundation for long-term change, supporters say.

"Change doesn't happen overnight," said Tim Ceis, Democratic member of the bipartisan redistricting commission. "All we could do is set the stage for the possibility."

In all, four majority-minority districts were created from the redistricting efforts. The 15th in Yakima County and the 11th, 33rd and 37th in south King County. The King County ones evolved on their own into majority-minority districts, Ceis said.

That area of the county is a popular destination for immigrants and refugees, so the majority-minority district is made up of several minority communities, such as African refugees, Latinos, Asians and African Americans.

Asian-American, African-American and white lawmakers represent the districts. All are Democratic incumbents facing little challenge.

The 15th district spans the eastern half of the county on the lower stretch of Yakima Valley and includes parts of the city of Yakima, and covers all of Sunnyside, Union Gap, Moxee, Zillah and Granger. The towns dot the vast agricultural fields of hops and wine grapes.

The Latino community there is mostly poor and is grappling with a persistent gang problem. The district is more than 54 percent Latino. The number of Latino voting-age constituents or registered voters is less.

The district was created after a political battle between the Republican and Democrats in the state's redistricting commission, one of the last sticking points in negotiations that went until the last minute this past New Year's Eve.

The district was also heavily lobbied for by OneAmerica, the state's largest immigrant rights advocacy group, and its allies.

The groups ushered people from minority communities to public meetings to tell the redistricting committee they wanted the majority-minority districts at the state and congressional level.

But the organization didn't recruit candidates for this cycle, instead focusing on long-term development.

It's "not a political plan focusing on a political year, but one focused on building infrastructure," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica. "We're also trying to prime the pump for candidates who may run down the road."

The Yakima Valley resembles California or Texas 40 years ago, said Luz Bazan Gutierrez, a Texas native who moved to the area two decades ago and now is a shop owner in Yakima and president of The Rural Community Development Resources center.

She applauded the efforts to get the Latino majority district, but "now, really, that's where the rubber hits the road. It's up to us, the local people who understand the participatory process, to convince people that we can win, and we should get involved."

The problem, she said, is that there is little money for politics among Latinos. Campaigns take money. Being involved in council or school boards takes money too, a luxury that's not available to many in the area.

Because of that, she said, community groups on the west side of the mountains should lend a hand financially, but let the Latino community decide what to do.

For Rep. David Taylor, whose legislative seat now is in the 15th district, the majority-minority redrawing wasn't needed.

"It was already a majority-minority district," he said. "That's the fallacy of the redistricting commission showed. It chose to exclude other minorities in their count."

Taylor said the new district carves out Yakama Indian Nation members and a Filipino community that used to be in his district.

"I think every election has the possibility for change. I wouldn't change the way I run my campaign for election," Taylor said. "The fact of the matter is that I am here to represent the entire district, not just the Republican politics."

He also points out that the area has already yielded a Latino lawmaker. Mary Skinner served in the House of Representatives for seven terms before retiring in 2008 as a Republican.

Skinner, who died in 2009, was the daughter of migrant workers who had moved to Wapato seeking work. Spanish was her first language.

Still, in Washington politics, Latinos are a people of potential, at least in their sheer numbers.

They are the fastest growing minority and have become the majority in a couple of small eastern Washington counties.

They are young, too. Once those teenagers become of voting age, they will have the power to steer politics, or at least have politicians take an interest in their demographic, advocates say.

In their analysis of the 15th district, OneAmerica found that between 10,000 and 11,000 teenagers will reach 18 years old in the next four years in Yakima County.

But whether a formidable Latino candidate emerges from those numbers remains to be seen.

Whitman College professor Paul Apostolidis, who leads an annual report on politics and the Latino population, said thin leadership and existing obstacles in the political system combine to keep Latinos from politics.

In their latest report, Apostolidis' class found that in 30 years, Latinos have made up more than 20 percent of the population of 9 counties, including Yakima, but have been elected to just below 3 percent of the city council and school district seats - positions that usually serve as springboards to bigger offices.

They also found that "generational and inter-racial tension affects perceptions of Latino voter engagement."

"There is plenty of leadership, but the leadership is dispersed," Apostolidis said. "You have to have people who have a resume so they can be seen as legitimate contenders."

Bazan Gutierrez disagrees.

"White people always want to say we're not united. You know what, they're not either. They don't know the leadership. Every community has their own leaders," later adding, "I applaud Pablo for running. He's young and many times young people are most likely to make changes."

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Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes

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