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Originally published April 8, 2012 at 5:50 PM | Page modified April 9, 2012 at 3:12 PM

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In new Latino-majority legislative district, Latino candidates scarce

Pablo Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Central Washington University student, is so far the only declared Latino candidate in the newly created 15th Legislative District, where Latinos are the majority.

The Associated Press

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I get it, only Latino reps for Latinos? Is that what this article is saying? Going down... MORE
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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-body 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 announced a bid for a seat in the district.

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 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, a 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 in redistricting: the 15th in Yakima County and the 11th, 33rd and 37th in South King County. Those in King County 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 Yakima County on the lower stretch of Yakima Valley and includes parts of Yakima and all of Sunnyside, Union Gap, Moxee, Zillah and Granger. The towns dot vast agricultural fields of hops and wine grapes.

The Latino community there is mostly poor and grapples 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 Republicans and Democrats on the state's redistricting commission — one of the last sticking points in negotiations that went until the last minute New Year's Eve.

The district was also heavily championed 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 commission 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 create 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 there is little money for politics among Latinos. Campaigns take money. Being involved in councils or school boards takes money too, a luxury not available to many.

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 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 already has yielded a Latino lawmaker. Mary Skinner served as a Republican in the House of Representatives for seven terms before retiring in 2008.

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 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 are old enough to vote, they will have the power to steer politics or at least to have politicians take an interest in their demographic, advocates say.

In their analysis of the 15th District, OneAmerica found that 10,000 to 11,000 teens will reach 18 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 its latest report, Apostolidis' class found that in 30 years, Latinos have made up more than 20 percent of the population of nine counties, including Yakima, but have been elected to just below 3 percent of the city-council and school-board seats — positions that often are springboards to bigger offices.

They also found that "generational and interracial 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 résumé 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."

She later added, "I applaud Pablo for running. He's young, and many times young people are most likely to make changes."

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