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With Hispanic help, Democrats hope to win in Eastern Washington

Election 2008.

Long in the shadow of Republicans, Democrats in Central Washington are hoping to get a foothold on elective office in 2008, banking on a maturing Hispanic community, particularly in Yakima County, and political enthusiasm seems to be running high.

Democratic hopes center around Vickie Ybarra, a nurse and former State Board of Health member active in the Hispanic community, which makes up nearly 40 percent of Yakima County residents. The 14th District hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Legislature since 1992, but Ybarra would not be the first Hispanic. Rep. Mary Skinner, a Republican retiring after seven terms, is Hispanic.

Yakima and the 4th Congressional District in general make up the heartland of Republican territory in Washington, but veteran Democratic activists are talking about a “blue wave” that they hope will put Ybarra in Olympia and — a long shot to be sure — send a Democrat to Congress for the first time since 1994.

For as long as most can remember, Yakima County has been to Republicans as central Seattle has been to Democrats — inviolable territory where the minority party had to look for sacrificial lambs (or donkeys or elephants, as the case may be).

Why are central Washington Democrats feeling better about 2008?

Several reasons are cited by Paul George, Yakima County Democratic chairman, beginning with huge (for his area) turnouts at political meetings this year. He cites more than 600 at an annual county Democratic convention in April and a record 1,800 at the presidential caucuses in February, compared to only 400 at Republican caucuses.

Ybarra is the best candidate the party has fielded for the Legislature in some time, and the 14th District seat is open, vacated by Skinner. The president of the Yakima School Board, Ybarra is a nurse, former member of the State Board of Health, and director of planning and development for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. She is an instructor with the University of Washington’s School of Health and Public Medicine. She figures to be a key in getting out a larger Hispanic vote than in most elections. George sees the Hispanic vote, which has been depressed by the complexities of the county’s all-mail ballot, as the key to resurgence of Democrats in the region.

Despite their numbers, Hispanics have not been a strong political factor in the county. Seattle Democratic Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney grew up in the southern Yakima Valley, but her political career came on the west side of the Cascades. Hispanics have won some local contests in the southern part of the county and hope to elect Wapato Mayor Jesse Farias, a Vietnam War hero, to the county commission, which hasn’t had a Democrat since 2000.

Arid Eastern Washington is changing demographically, and although most of the attention has been on growth in the Hispanic community, there has been an influx of outsiders attracted to the region for its expanding wine culture and appeal as a retirement destination. Yakima, the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco, and Walla Walla in particular are impacted by the incomers, who may bring with them a more liberal political outlook than the conservatives who have dominated the political scene for generations.

This impact is most apparent in Walla Walla, which has been the subject of flattering profiles in The New York Times and other national publications, but expensive new housing and other indicators of a changed population are beginning to be in evidence in the Yakima area, as well.

While this will not necessarily mean a loss of Republican control, it bodes well for attractive candidates from either party, particularly those who can speak to cultural and livability issues that will be of more importance to the incomers than party loyalty or family voting history.

Yakima County is the largest in the seven-county 4th Congressional District and perhaps the most vulnerable to changing demographics. The county supported Jay Inslee, a Selah Democrat, in his successful race for Congress in 1992 and stayed with him two years later when he was defeated by Republican Doc Hastings of Pasco, who has represented the district since. Hastings handily won each election since, but in 2008 a Kennewick lawyer, George Fearing, hopes to take advantage of anti-Republican and anti-Bush sentiment — as Hastings took advantage of the Republican “Contract with America” in 1994.

The other large county in the district, Benton, which encompasses Kennewick and Richland, has also had strong growth and could test its traditional Republican leadership in 2008. The Tri-Cities area has one of the highest educational levels in the state, thanks to the Hanford nuclear site and related industries, but unlike the Democratic voting pattern that emerges from other high-education communities hosting university campuses, Benton County is more responsive to the national-security and nuclear-science interests of its well-educated residents. The last Democratic force to emerge from the Tri-Cities was Mike McCormack, a Hanford scientist who served in the House from 1971-81.

Growth and maturing of the longtime Hispanic community’s leadership would appear to be the best chance for Democrats to overturn traditional Republican control of Central Washington, and Yakima County could be an interesting place to watch this year.

The key is doubtless the Hispanic turnout and the ability of Democrats to increase voting and turn it toward candidates like Vickie Ybarra. The county’s all-mail balloting is a hurdle, Democratic leaders believe, because failure to meet all the requirements of voting — signing and dating the ballot, marking it correctly — can bring disqualification. Leslie Wahl, Democratic chair of the state 14th District, notes that in 2006 almost 5,000 ballots with Latino surnames were “spoiled” or discarded because of some ballot error. Washington’s Democratic Party is putting resources into a voting education effort this year as a result, in key counties such as Yakima.

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