Nearly nine out of 10 city councils across the Northwest have no Latino members. That estimate comes from a database we assembled of Hispanic officeholders in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. One of the cities with no Latino representations is located in one of the most heavily Hispanic parts of our region. We’re talking about the city of Yakima. The ACLU is suing over the issue. Correspondent Austin Jenkins has our latest story on why the region's largest minority group has so little clout in the political arena.
Flip through the radio dial in Yakima and you’ll hear lots of Spanish.
It’s not surprising. More than four in 10 residents here are Hispanic. But the Yakima city council is all white. In fact, no one can remember a Latino ever being elected to the council. About the closest the city came was in 2009. That’s when Sonia Rodriguez -- a family law lawyer -- was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council. That fall she ran for election.
"I thought I would be able to retain my seat," she recalls. "I worked hard in my campaign.”
But on Election Day Rodriguez -– who has since married and now goes by Rodriguez True -- came up four points short.
Rodriguez: “I can’t say why I lost. It was definitely surprising to me.”
Asked whether her Hispanic surname could have been the reason for your defeat, she answers “Definitely the question has arisen in my mind because I thought I did a very good job on the council.”
Rodriguez True was defeated by a well-known conservative talk radio host in town named Dave Ettl. He had high name recognition. But he also had some past run-ins with the law, was hobbled for part of the campaign with a roller skating injury and ran for the office as the self-proclaimed “unpolitician.”
Rodriguez True sits in her cramped law office surrounded by posters of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. She says more than anything she felt like she ran up against a deeply rooted political culture in Yakima.
Rodriguez: “A lot of people that are prominent in our community would tell me that they support me, but sometimes it would be difficult to get their actual public support.”
A few blocks away, in another cramped office – this one featuring images of Ronald Reagan – newspaper publisher Bruce Smith has a different analysis.
“These people are losing races not because they are Hispanic, but because they are moderate or liberal and we’re a conservative community," he says. "Put a Hispanic up there who’s a conservative and has paid their dues in the community and that person is going to get elected.”
But Seattle civil rights attorney David Perez says it’s not that simple. He’s among a group of lawyers and academics who’ve used a court-approved methodology to analyze voting trends in Yakima - and other eastern Washington. He says the numbers reveal something called racially polarized voting.
“We’re not calling entire communities racist,” he stresses.
Instead, Perez explains racially polarized voting is when the white majority consistently defeats the candidate supported by the minority community.
“The Sonia Rodriguez case is a classic example," Perez says. "The Latino community had its preference. The white community had a very different preference. The Latino community’s candidate lost.”
Perez says the problem in Yakima is all city council members -- even those who represent districts -- are elected city-wide. The solution Perez proposes: move to district-based elections. Perez helped author the proposed Washington state Voting Rights Act. It’s modeled after a similar law in California. It would allow lawsuits to force local governments -- even school boards and hospital districts -- to adopt district elections if racially polarized voting can be demonstrated.
“It’s not a matter of only Latinos can represent Latinos," Perez says. "The question is should Latinos have an equal opportunity to get elected?”
Earlier this year, conservative newspaperman Bruce Smith editorialized against the proposed Voting Rights Act -- which did not pass -- calling it the year’s “most-odious piece of legislation” in Olympia.
“It’s racist," he says. "It’s racial politics at its worst.”
Politics and poker are Smith’s twin passions. On the day I met him, he gave me a tour of his private poker room across the parking lot from his newspaper office. Smith hosts Tuesday night leagues in this “man cave” complete with cigars, Xbox and two poker tables.
“It’s all legal, it’s all legal," he says. "No rake, no fee.”
Smith’s critics have described him in the local press as a bit of a political kingmaker. I ask him if there was any truth to the idea that if you’re going to be successful in politics in this town that you will spend some time in this room playing a little poker with Bruce Smith.
“No, that’s just silly," he responds. "Clearly we’ve got some games that involve a lot of elected officials and whatever. Actually that game doesn’t even play here.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. And in came Republican State Representative Norm Johnson.
“Oh you’re busted," Smith says. "Do you know Austin Jenkins?”
Johnson:“I do know Austin Jenkins. How are you?”
Johnson defeated a Latino challenger to win his legislative seat. He’s not a poker player. He came here to talk with Smith about campaign lawn signs. As Johnson took a seat on a couch in the poker room, I asked him about Latinos getting elected to public office here. He rattled off a list of several.
“When you go up and down the Valley, it’s the norm," Johnson says. "I believe Wapato has a majority of Hispanics on their council.”
Our analysis of the number of Latino officeholders in the Northwest confirms that Yakima County is ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the region. But there’s still a notable gap. Yakima County is 45 percent Hispanic, but it appears only 20 percent of the local elected leaders are Latino. The ACLU of Washington recently filed a federal Voting Rights lawsuit against the city of Yakima. That’s why radio host and city councilman Dave Ettl, the man who beat Sonia Rodriguez, reluctantly declined an interview for this story on advice of city attorneys.
But in 2010, shortly after his election, he created a YouTube moment on the topic of Latino leadership in Yakima. It was during a discussion of the city’s gang problem.
Ettl: “Where is our respected, outspoken, 'take the bull by the horns' Hispanic leadership wrestling with this problem? Where is that?”
Ettl was quickly reminded by his fellow council members that he had defeated one of them. As for the Washington Voting Rights Act, it died this year in Olympia, but backers expect it to be one of the first bills introduced again next year. I’m Austin Jenkins in Yakima.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network