Republicans push for bipartisan commission to redraw WA Latino district

Instead of passing the task to a federal court, they are advocating for the Washington State Redistricting Commission to reconvene.

Martha Jimenez shows a ballot

Martha Jimenez, a bilingual outreach coordinator for the Yakima County Elections Office, goes over ballots with a U.S. citizenship class on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Republican and Democratic political leaders in Central Washington — and statewide — disagree on next steps in response to a federal court order demanding new political boundary maps be drawn to ensure a Latino voter majority legislative district that also meets federal voting rights laws. 

Maia Espinoza, executive director of The Center for Latino Leadership, believes Gov. Jay Inslee should call a special session of the Washington Legislature so lawmakers can reconvene the State Redistricting Commission to draw a new map for the 15th Legislative District.

But Democratic leaders in the Legislature and the Latino Democratic Caucus want to let the court decide on the new maps, with input from the people and organizations who brought the lawsuit challenging the maps drawn by the Redistricting Commission. In earlier comments, Democrats expressed doubts that the reconstituted bipartisan Commission could do a better job this time around.

“Governor Inslee, you should call a special session and get this Commission back on track to do its job,” Espinoza said at a news conference late last week. She ran as a Republican in the 28th Legislative District in 2018 and for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, a nonpartisan position, in 2020. 

Espinoza was among a group of conservative Latino and Latina government and community leaders at the press conference Thursday in Grandview, a Yakima Valley city in the 15th Legislative District. The conference was held at a local wine bar owned by Grandview Mayor Gloria Mendoza, who also spoke. 

Joining them was Deanna Martinez, deputy mayor of Moses Lake, and Mike Gonzalez, Franklin County administrator and a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. 

In August, U.S. Federal Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled in favor of Latino voters in Central Washington who filed suit over the 15th Legislative District, acknowledging that while meeting the required majority percentage of Latino voters, the district was drawn in a way that dilutes their voting power. 

Once a decade Washington convenes a bipartisan commission to redraw the maps for legislative and congressional districts, based on updated U.S. Census data. While some states leave redistricting decisions up to the political party that controls their state government, Washington has employed a different approach, which most of the time has successfully reached a compromise agreement. 

The Republican group who spoke in Grandview Thursday called the lawsuit a gerrymandering attempt. They also took issue with those saying that state Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, a Latina serving in the 15th Legislative District, did not provide valid representation for the Latino community in the Yakima Valley and neighboring areas in Central Washington. 

“She just hit the ground running. I can tell you that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a senator visit our community more than Nikki Torres,” said Mayor Mendoza, also noting her ability to engage with monolingual Spanish speakers in the city. “I don’t think you’re going to find someone that is closer to the Latino community than Nikki Torres.” 

Martinez also expressed that Latinos are not a monolithic voting group, and that many in Central Washington’s Latino communities align with conservative principles. 

“To say that one party has all the answers for us is disrespectful,” she said. 

Mendoza agreed, adding, “Not everyone fits in a box, and we should be able to have representation that is able to be flexible and reflect our diversity.” 

Conservative Latino politicians and community leaders including, from left, executive director for the Center for Latino Leadership Maia Espinoza; Grandview Mayor Gloria Mendoza; Moses Lake Deputy Mayor Deanna Martinez and Franklin County Administrator Mike Gonzalez prep for a livestream they held in Grandview on Thursday, September 28, to voice their concerns about Democrats’ view that the court, rather than the Washington State Redistricting Commission, should draw the map of the 15th Legislative District. (Mai Hoang/Crosscut)

In his ruling, Lasnik said that political science and voting experts sufficiently showed that Latinos in the Yakima Valley — upward of 70% — generally vote for the same candidate, and that candidate is usually a Democrat. They also showed how Latino voters have consistently ended up on the losing side of elections.  

Lasnik disagreed with the conservative Latinos’ premise — as represented by a group of intervenors in the lawsuit —  that the presence of Torres in the 15th Legislative District means that the district aligns with federal voting-rights laws. Lasnik maintained that while there was progress in voter accessibility for the Latino community and representation of Latinos in the state Legislature, that doesn’t negate the roadblocks voters in the district continue to experience.  

Martinez of Moses Lake, in the neighboring 13th Legislative District, believes that if the 15th District map needs to be redrawn, it should be done by the bipartisan Commission. 

“This lawsuit is very partisan. And to have one judge who lives on the west side, making this decision for those of us who live in Central Washington and Eastern Washington, is, frankly, not appropriate,” she said. 

House Deputy Minority Leader Mike Steele, R-Chelan and Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia mirrored that sentiment in a statement issued Wednesday, urging the Legislature to go into special session to reconvene the Redistricting Commission. 

“If majority leadership stands by their decision to not call a special session and punts redistricting to the federal courts, they will not only be shirking their legislative responsibility to the people of Washington,” they said in the statement, saying the Democrats wanted to use the courts to try to accomplish something they could not do in the regular redistricting process.  

 “This is an intolerable dereliction of legislative duty and a blatant end-around the state constitution,” they said. 

Next steps 

The state, however, anticipates difficulty in getting the Legislature to reconvene the Commission — a two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed — and now is taking steps to assist the court as it takes on the process of developing a new map for the 15th District, according to a status report filed by state attorneys. 

In the filing, attorneys recommended the court appoint a “special master,” someone who would assist the court in drawing maps. The state also recommended a status conference with all parties to discuss potential candidates for the position and a process to submit materials to the special master. 

The state also said it would not submit proposed maps unless ordered by the court, as the law outlines no method to develop such maps other than the Redistricting Commission.

However, Braun and Steele also filed a statement — in response to the state status report — stating it would be premature for the court to shorten the remedial period — the original deadline was in January 2024 —  for the state to address the issue. They argue that only two Legislators — Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane — have made a public statement urging the task be passed on to the court. 

“A two-third vote of legislators in each chamber is also required to reconvene the Commission,” they wrote in the statement filed by their attorney. “Thus, it will be up to 66 Representatives and 33 Senators to decide whether to convene a special session of the Legislature and reconvene the Commission, not any one caucus leader. Caucus leaders, including the Minority Caucus Leaders, are typically elected by their members to represent them, not to dictate to them."

The leaders contend there’s plenty of time for new developments that could result in a commission reconvening, including Democrats agreeing to do so in “exchange for concessions or other legislative priorities” or in response to public pressure. 

“The Court should ensure legislators have sufficient time to engage in their legislative deliberations before assuming the Legislature has deadlocked,” Braun and Steele said in their statement. 

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