In an election season dripping with racism and anti-elitism, one race in the heart Republican Washington could be read as a marker for just how far those sentiments stretched.
Sitting Judge David Estudillo, appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to fill the seat of retiring Judge Evan Sperline, was running for the first time to retain his seat. He was also Eastern Washington’s only Latino Superior Court judge. His opponent was Nick Wallace, an attorney who made no qualms bringing up Estudillo’s ties to that most maligned of places, Western Washington.
The question, uncomfortable as it may be, was could he, a man with a Hispanic last name and ties to Inslee, actually succeed in the Republican stronghold in Grant County?
The central county has always been a Republican stronghold. Further, the county has a sordid history in the legal realm, settling a 2005 case with the American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services for not providing adequate legal representation to those who could not afford counsel. And despite the sizeable Latino population, there are almost no elected officials of Hispanic descent.
As Estudillo prepared to run for re-election, he knew all this. “At the back of my head there was fear,” he told me last week, sitting in a Starbucks on the edge of the small town of Moses Lake. “When you hear that there’s never been a Latino judge that’s ever won a countywide election, it’s like, what did I get myself into?”
Estudillo has a calm intensity about him. He was the second youngest child in a line of ten born to his Mexican-immigrant parents. They owned a grocery store in Sunnyside, Washington, a majority Latino town of over 15,000 and home to Darigold dairy. The weather there lives up to its name, with hardly any rainy days year round. As he worked through law school at the University of Washington, he’d drive home on the weekends and read his briefing books as he manned the cash register.
He’s a devout Catholic; on his campaign materials, he listed five “Eastern Washington values,” starting with faith. The others were family, hard work, education and community. He opened a private firm in Moses Lake, Estudillo Law Firm, PLLC, in 1999, where he focused on immigration law and civil litigation.
When Sperline announced his retirement in spring 2015, Estudillo put in his application to finish out his term. Wallace, his future opponent, did as well. When Inslee selected Estudillo, the Governor called him “a leader in Washington’s legal community for many years. He has worked tirelessly as an attorney, community leader, and public servant.”
The selection, while of course an honor, provided Wallace an opportunity to tie Estudillo to Inslee and therefore the elite on the other side of the mountains. And right out of the gates, Wallace took to Facebook to hammer this point home last February. “I am pleased to declare officially my candidacy to fill the position the Honorable Evan Sperline’s (sic) formerly held on the Grant County Superior Court,” he wrote, “and which is now held by Governor Jay Inslee’s political appointee.”
It would become Wallace’s main line of attack. “Political appointments are made for political reasons,” he wrote in a sponsored post on Facebook, “but this coming November Grant County voters will have the final say on who serves them on Grant County Superior Court.”
From the beginning, there were racial undertones. In Inslee’s statement on Estudillo’s qualifications, the Governor noted that Estudillo would be “the only Latino Superior, District, or Municipal court judge serving in all of Eastern Washington.”
Wallace seized on this: “After making the appointment Governor Inslee disclosed the basis for his decision,” he wrote, before citing the final line. The implication, of course, is that Estudillo’s heritage was the only reason he got the job.
In later Facebook interactions, Wallace confirmed this is exactly what he meant. One woman wrote of Estudillo that he “solely got the job based on race. That’s reverse racism.”
Responding, Wallace wrote “You are correct — Governor Inslee’s decision to appoint my opponent to fill Judge Sperline’s position had NOTHING to do with qualifications, experience or ties to the local community.”
The Estudillo campaign looked at all of this and made a bet: Grant county voters cared enough about basic values — faith, family, hard work, education — that if they could be convinced Estudillo shared these values, the judge’s race and ties to Inslee would not matter.
“I wanted to show them that I am not different,” says Estudillo. At the end of the day, he says, “people respect hard work.”
So Estudillo went old-school, knocking on doors, walking in parades through towns smaller than most Seattle neighborhoods. (In one town, says Estudillo, they had to do loops to stretch the parade longer than a few minutes.) He went to coffee groups with the good ol’ boys in town, courted local Republicans as well as the endorsements of Washington’s Supreme Court justices, all while presiding over a murder trial — which he had to do well to show he could handle these types of criminal and civil cases he’d continue to handle.
And it began to work. Democrats and Republicans both threw their support behind him, including Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, and Garth Dano, Grant County’s Prosecutor.
Anne Mix is a lifelong Republican and member of the Tea Party. To Mix, Inslee’s name is a dirty word. But none of that stopped her from becoming one of Estudillo’s most fervent backers. “There are some people, that [Inslee’s appointment] bothers them,” she says. “But [Estudillo has] been here long enough that it’s obvious that that’s not a problem. My concern is how he’s going to judge. He’s done very well here. I don’t see any bias for any particular people.”
In a county that voted 65 percent for Donald Trump and 67 percent for Republican candidate for governor Bill Bryant, Estudillo squeaked out a victory, beating Wallace by fewer than 1,000 votes.
"This race is important because it may tell us how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go, on issues of race and politics here in Washington state," Seattle attorney David Perez wrote in a column in Crosscut before the election.
Estudillo doesn't quite see it that way. He points instead to the tenets of his campaign and his experience. "It’s hard for me to say I see it on a personal level," he says. "I’ve got so much support that I’m worthy of being in my position. I can’t say [racism is] not out there, but I can’t say I’ve felt it personally."
For him, his election was a referendum not so much on race or political divisions, but motivation. "He wanted what I wanted,” Estudillo says of his opponent. “I just wanted it more."