E. Washington's 15th District: Where Hispanic voters may make a difference -- someday

Population numbers don't add up to electoral success, or even voter participation.
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Gabriel Munoz

Population numbers don't add up to electoral success, or even voter participation.

This is the state Senate contest where race might have been a factor. But it probably won't be.

The Senate face-off is in eastern Yakima County's 15th District — Granger, Sunnyside, Zillah, Toppenish, Selah and part of Yakima. It's longtime Republican country straddling Interstate 90. Farming turf. An increasingly mechanized, less labor intensive agricultural and food processing center. An outer bedroom community for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Some younger people are leaving, but small entrepreneurs are popping up.

"The Yakima Valley is going through some dramatic changes," said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger and a lifetime resident. 

Democrat Gabriel Muñoz of Yakima, whose parents ran a Mexican restaurant when he was growing up, is challenging Sen. Jim Honeyford, R- Sunnyside. In one other race, for a state House of Representatives seat, Democrats have also fielded an Hispanic-surnamed candidate.

Two numbers tell the 15th's political story. Fifty-five percent of the 15th District's people are Hispanic. But only 30 percent of the district's roughly 54,000 registered voters have Hispanic surnames. There are a significant numbers of the district's Latinos who are not U.S. citizens, local observers said, although that hardly accounts for the entire shortfall. Democrats have long sought to energize more Latino citizens to take an active part in politics and elections.

"We have the numbers. We don't have the votes," said Gilberto Alaniz, general manager of long-time Spanish-language radio station KDNA in Granger.

"The time is now for Latinos to stand up and vote," said Teodora Martinez-Chavez of Outlook, who is running as a Democrat against Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee.

Martinez-Chavez and Muñoz believe the human factor of wanting to vote for someone from a similar background could play a role in increasing Hispanic voter turnouts. Martinez-Chavez said: "We're bilingual. We're bicultural. We come from humble backgrounds and 'know where you come from.' "

Muñoz said: "I don't think race is the biggest factor. It could be a factor. It's going to be the person who can best connect with the community." Alaniz said: "Whoever it is needs to go over and beyond the Latino population. It comes down to the years you lived in the area."

Honeyford declined to be interviewed. Taylor answered questions emailed to him by email.

In one reflection of the changing demographics in Eastern Washington, a federal judge recently ordered Yakima to rearrange its part-district, part-citywide system for electing city council members to ensure that its huge Latino population is represented on the council. Also lurking in the background is speculation that an Anglo last name fares better at the polls than a Hispanic surname. A 2012 Washington Supreme Court race seemed to bear that out. A highly respected, highly qualified candidate, Steven González, managed to win, but he lost in all of Eastern Washington's counties against an opponent who did no campaigning and who was criticized by his own Kitsap County Bar Association.

Crosscut political analyst Benjamin Anderstone noted that the 15th's Hispanic-majority precincts tend to vote Democratic and the white-majority precincts tend to vote Republican. However, there can be a shared cultural conservatism: Every 15th District precinct rejected same-sex marriage in 2012. Anderstone also noted an interesting wrinkle: The largely Latino town of Mabton, population 2,300, went 85 percent for Obama in 2012 — but only 300 Mabton residents voted.

Muñoz and Martinez-Chavez have lifetime ties to the area, and still got creamed in the Aug. 5 primary. Honeyford outpolled Muñoz 11,464 to 3,719 in the Aug. 5 primary — a 76 percent to 24 percent split. Taylor swamped Martinez-Chavez 11,246 to 3,683 — a 75 percent to 25 percent split. Chandler is unopposed for re-election.

The fundraising gaps are just as huge. Honeyford has raised $156,515 and has spent $130,698, while Muñoz has collected a super-low $16,315 and has spent $8,506. Meanwhile, Taylor's $30,650 in donations would be pitiful in most legislative races, but Martinez-Chavez has raised only $9,457. Taylor has spent $9,190 while Martinez-Chavez has spent $8,628.

Chandler noted that the rural 15th District is not compatible to expensive television campaigns and that the local media tends to be fragmented, hampering the cost-effectiveness of the big advertising buys that work better for urban and suburban candidates.

Grassroots political activity rules in eastern Yakima County. The four candidates in the two races have all been in the Yakima Valley for most, if not all, of their lives, and all have been active in community affairs.

Honeyford, 75, was a cop for six years and a teacher and coach for 30 years in the valley, as well as spending four years in the Washington House and 16 years in the Senate. Honeyford was unopposed in 2010, but faced a high-profile farm worker activist, the late Tomás Villanueva, in 2006. Villanueva captured only 38 percent of the vote in November 2006.

Muñoz, 34, grew up in Wapato, where his parents owned a Mexican restaurant; he picked cherries and apples as a young boy. The former U.S. Army sergeant later graduated from Central Washington University where he was student president. A former Yakima Valley mid-level business manager, he is now outreach coordinator for People For People.

Taylor is one of most conservative House members — taking strong stands for property rights and against taxes and government regulations. He has spearheaded an ongoing, bipartisan effort to regulate drones. A Moxee rancher and a former Kittitas County government planning official, he was appointed to his seat in 2009 and defeated Democrats with Hispanic surnames by more than 60 percent in both 2010 and 2012.

Martinez-Chavez, 50, grew up in a farm worker family, is a former single mom who eventually worked her way through a master's degree in education. She is a community health worker.

Honeyford and Taylor have solid conservative voting records in the Legislature, while Muñoz and Martinez-Chavez could be classified as moderate Democrats, certainly not as liberal as Seattle's Olympia delegation. Muñoz and Martinez-Chavez believe a proposed 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike s backed by the House and Senate Democrats is too high. Taylor opposes any gas tax increase. Honeyford has a conservative attitude toward taxes.

There has been one somewhat race-tinged split between the sets of opposing candidates in the 15th over the Dream Act. The law makes Washington high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants eligible to apply for college financial aid. Republican Chandler was one of the bill's chief architects and a major backer during its two-year struggle to finally pass last February. His fellow Republicans, Honeyford and Taylor, voted against every version of the Dream Act including a final Republican-rewritten version. Muñoz and Martinez-Chavez pointed to those "nay" votes as evidence that Honeyford and Taylor are losing touch with their Hispanic constituents.

Chandler, Alaniz and KDNA news director Francisco Rios see Yakima Valley Latinos eventually getting into the statehouse, but they were all skeptical that this will be the year. Chandler noted that being a legislator requires an everyday job with massive amounts of time off while still being able to support a family. That is a huge obstacle to finding candidates, he said.

Rios and Alaniz said more ground work is needed to get Latinos elected in the 15th, including running effective voter registration and turnout drives; shepherding more farm workers to citizenship; helping potential candidates build more familiarity with issues, especially those beyond Latino interests; and just learning the nooks and crannies of the 15th District better.

Alaniz said: "You better have your ducks together on the issues."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8