Yakima set to elect first Latino city council member

People in Yakima gather to support the Washington Voting Rights act, which aims to provide an alternative to federal voting rights lawsuits. (Photo by Eric Gonzalez Alfaro for OneAmerica.)
People in Yakima gather to support the Washington Voting Rights act, which aims to provide an alternative to federal voting rights lawsuits. (Photo by Eric Gonzalez Alfaro/OneAmerica.)

After decades of court wrangling, Yakima is all but assured to elect its first Latino city council member this November.

About 41 percent of the city’s population is Latino. But no candidate with a Hispanic last name has ever won election to Yakima City Council.

The city’s new districts, proposed by the ACLU, were ordered by federal Judge Thomas O. Rice earlier this year, a few months after he ruled that the city’s previous city-wide election system seemed to keep candidates from reaching office.

All three candidates from Yakima’s newly drawn District 1, which has a predominantly Hispanic population, are Latino — Llosimar Garcia, Dulce Gutierrez and Russell Monteiro. Barring the unforeseen, one of them will go on to become the first elected Latino city council member.

A Latina councilwoman was appointed to fill a vacant seat in 2008, but she lost in the subsequent election.

“I’m running to bring a voice to the low-income and Latino community in my district,” Monteiro wrote on his public Facebook page.

“The new City Council districts mean that East Yakima finally has a chance to have its priorities and concerns heard. This is an incredible, historic opportunity!” Gutierrez wrote on her Facebook page.

It’s a change that is getting many voters excited and newly engaged in the process, says Yakima resident Nick Marquez, a board member of the statewide Latino Civic Alliance.

“I think everyone in general, not just the Latinos,” he said.

Other city council races also drew Hispanic candidates — giving some Latino Yakima residents hope for more representation on the council after the federal court ruling that the city’s at-large election system disenfranchised Latino voters.

District 1 is majority-minority with Hispanic voters making up about 52 percent of the voting age population. Another district has Hispanic voters making up about 40 percent of the voting age population. The other five districts have white majorities. Rice wrote in his ruling that the proposal, drawn by the ACLU, avoids concentrating the city’s Latino voters into one district.

However, the federal ruling and this November’s election might not be the end of Yakima’s voting rights issue. The city of Yakima has proposed a hybrid at-large/district system similar to the one launching in Seattle this November.

The city appealed the federal ruling earlier this year. Francis Floyd, the attorney representing the city, said an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on a voting rights lawsuit in Texas could give the city grounds for appeal.

Yakima council member Dave Ettl spoke in favor of the appeal, before voting on it last month. Ettl argued the new districts are not representative because some districts have fewer registered voters, which gives voters in those districts an outsized say.

“If you take the total number of people who can vote, citizen voting age population in District 1 as designed right now, it’s about 5,000 (voters) of the 12,000. In district 7 of the 12,000 or 13,000 people, it’s just below 10,000 (voters),” Ettl said.

This isn’t the first attempt to change Yakima’s system. In 2011, a citizen-led proposition to abolish the old system and redistrict the city council according geography made it to the ballot. However, Yakima voters rejected the proposition 52.4 percent to 47.6 percent, according to Yakima County Election records.

Washington Voting Rights Act stalls

The city of Yakima has spent nearly $1 million defending its position and faces up to $2.8 million in attorneys fees to the ACLU.

Marquez says that not all Yakima residents are happy that the city is spending that much money on defending its old system, and he hopes that the city backs down.

“They should just move forward. It is representative government, and the city council will get more representation on it,” Marquez said.

The Yakima case is having an impact in other cities — Wenatchee is looking at changing its city council system to a geographic district system as well.

State lawmakers have attempted to pass a Washington Voting Rights Act, which was aimed at trying to resolve disputes over voter suppression through mediation and before lawsuits get filed, but the efforts have stalled in the state Senate.

Felipe Rodriguez Flores, who is working on the issue, said the current version of the bill would give cities and residents options to explore solutions to unfair representation without going through the federal court system.

They would be able to to avoid lawsuits and have a community-led process and avoid a lot of the acrimony,” Rodriguez Flores said.

Marquez, originally from southern California, moved to Yakima and became a real estate agent after leaving the military.

He said he didn’t realize how little Latino interests were represented by the city, until a few years ago, when the city manager at the time discouraged then-Police Chief Sam Granato from accepting an invitation to hear President Barack Obama speak on the issue of immigration.

“As a veteran, it baffles me to know that we are in this day and age. and there are people fighting for these restrictive elections,” Marquez said. “It’s unbelievable.”