New Central WA districts spark drama as the 2024 election revs up

The Latino-majority 14th Legislative District has created new opportunities for some candidates and attracted criticism from others.

A person deposits a ballot into a box labeled "Ballot Drop Box Urna Electoral"

Jordan Chavez turns in his ballot at the Yakima County Elections office on July 28, 2022. New boundaries for the 14th Legislative District created two open state representative seats. Latinos across the political spectrum seek the opportunity to fill them. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

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Ana Ruiz Kennedy thought she would be making a second run for Franklin County Commissioner this year. 

She would be competing under a district-based system, a result of a May 2022 settlement of a lawsuit against the county under the state’s Voting Rights Act. Her 2020 election bid — as Ana Ruiz Peralta —  for Franklin County Commissioner, in which she won the Latino-majority precincts but lost the seat overall to her opponent, Rocky Mullen, was at the center of that lawsuit. 

But Kennedy shifted gears to seize the opportunity to run for an open seat in the redrawn 14th Legislative District, now a Latino-majority district. Kennedy, a Democrat, saw an opportunity to represent Pasco, her longtime residence, in not only the Legislature but the House Democratic Caucus, which hadn’t had representation from the area in some time. 

“I made the determination that I could assist the people of Franklin County in the state Legislature as effectively (if not more so) as I could on the Franklin County Board of Commissioners,” Kennedy said. 

Under a new map approved by a federal court judge and adopted by the state in March, the 14th is now a Latino voter-majority district. Judge Robert Lasnik oversaw the creation of the new map after he sided last August with voters who said the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission violated federal voting rights laws. 

The new legislative map has led to significant changes for this year’s elections. Two incumbent legislators decided not to run in the 14th after being excluded from their old district’s new boundaries, and several Latina and Latino candidates — from across the political spectrum — have filed to run in all three 14th District races. 

Kennedy is running for the seat held by Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale. Mosbrucker was drawn out of the 14th District and decided not to run for a seat in her new district. Kennedy believes that with the newly drawn Latino voter-majority district, she has a better chance to win. “I think there’s a level playing field,” she said. 

The 14th Legislative District, for now

A group of conservative Latino voters see it differently: They contend the voting rights issue is a guise by Democrats in the state to win elections in Central Washington, a historically conservative region.  

That group of voters who intervened in the voting rights lawsuit tried to stop the implementation of the new map for the 2024 election cycle in both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. Both efforts failed, but the voters can still pursue their appeal and possibly prevent the map from being used in elections beyond 2024.

That group, which includes State Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, has appealed the new map and the original voting rights decision from last summer that prompted its creation. 

Republican candidates in Central Washington have continued to push the sentiment. 

“This was nothing more than a Democrat power grab; there’s no other way to put this,” said Chris Corry, R-Yakima, currently serving as a state representative in the 14th Legislative District. “This started with Democrats in the Senate … undermining our redistricting process.”

Corry is now running for reelection in the 15th Legislative District under the new map boundaries. Corry said he didn’t want to move his large family to stay in the 14th District. 

Former Rep. Jeremie Dufault, a Republican from Selah, was drawn out of the 15th Legislative District in the redistricting commission’s 2022 map. Now that he is back in the 15th District, Dufault is looking to regain the seat. The seat is open as incumbent Bryan Sandlin, a Republican from Zillah in the lower Yakima Valley, decided not to run for another term. 

Dufault said being back in his old district was the “only good thing” he could say about the new map. 

“The bipartisan Washington redistricting commission had been a national model for fairly drawing legislative boundaries, unlike many states where the party in power draws maps to its advantages,” he said. “Democrats intentionally broke the system this cycle in an attempt to gain more power.” 

Democratic leaders in the state Legislature dispute this claim. When deciding to let the court oversee a new map process rather than reconvene the redistricting commission, Democratic leaders said they wanted to give Latino voters more feedback on a new map. The original plaintiffs who sued the state to redraw the maps claimed that the map drawn by the Washington State Redistricting Commission diluted Latino votes and weakened voter power. 

Latina Senate challenger sees opportunity in 14th District

Under previous iterations of the state’s Legislative map, including the most recent one drawn by the Washington State Redistricting Commission, Central Washington’s Latino population — particularly those in Yakima and Franklin counties — was divided into multiple districts, namely the 14th and the 15th. 

In the new map, those communities are all in the 14th Legislative District — east Yakima, the Latino-majority communities in the Lower Yakima Valley, and east Pasco in Franklin County.  

In 2022, Nikki Torres, a Republican Latina from Pasco, won the Senate seat in the 15th Legislative District, the Latino voter-majority district under the map drawn by the state redistricting commission. Torres is the first Latina to be elected to the position. 

But under the new map, Torres is no longer in the 15th Legislative District. She can serve the rest of her term, which continues through 2026. However, according to court documents, her current location would put her in the 16th Legislative District. 

However, attorneys for those who sued the state over the redistricting plan have said the issue is whether Latino and Latina voters’ candidate of choice can succeed in the election. They have argued that there isn’t proof that Torres was the definitive candidate of choice, noting low turnout among Latino voters. 

The new map sought to improve turnout by switching the Latino voter-majority district from the 15th to the 14th, where Senate elections fall in the same years as presidential elections, when Latino voter turnout has generally been higher. 

For the 14th District state senate seat, Democratic leaders have backed Maria Beltran, a Latina candidate from Yakima. Beltran declared her candidacy in February, well before the May filing deadline and about a month before the state adopted the new map. 

Yakima’s 14th District State Senate candidates Maria Beltran (D) and incumbent state Sen. Curtis King (R). (Courtesy of the candidates)

Beltran has a decade of experience in community organizing and campaigning. She was the youngest board president of OneAmerica, an organization that has been involved in voting-rights cases in the Yakima Valley, including one that brought district-based elections for spots on the Board of Yakima County Commissioners. 

Beltran said she was committed to running in the 14th Legislative District regardless of how the map turned out — she also was part of the 14th under the 2022 map. But she said she is excited to see how the new map will empower more voters of color in the 14th Legislative District. Along with connecting Latino communities in Yakima and Franklin counties, the new district boundaries kept the entirety of the Yakama Reservation and nearly of its off-site fishing villages and public lands in the 14th, instead of splitting it across districts. She also notes the district includes Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Lower Yakima Valley. 

“To win, we must have conversations with every type of voter, no matter where they live, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their political background,” Beltran said. “Running is so much more than me and my campaign; it’s about getting folks to engage and vote and feel their vote matters and makes a difference.” 

Beltran said addressing affordability is one of her top priorities. She said she has met with those working and still struggling to cover basic needs, such as rent, food and gas. She also wants to find ways to increase high-wage jobs and help people gain skills to secure those jobs. 

Unlike Torres, who ran uncontested in 2022 until she faced a write-in candidate from the primary, Beltran is challenging incumbent State Sen. Curtis King, who has served in the 14th Legislative District since 2007. 

King, a Republican from Yakima, relocated about a mile from his previous home to remain in the 14th District. King said that while he disagrees with how changes were made to the legislative map and takes issue with Torres being drawn out of her district, he’s accepted the map as it is now. 

“I feel like I have more to offer as a [state] Senator, and I was not ready to retire, which was my other choice,” he said. 

King said that while many of those voters were in other districts, he believed most knew of his work in the state Legislature, particularly in transportation and labor. King said his priorities, which include addressing the ailing ferry system and improving public education and safety, go beyond the boundaries of his district. 

King also notes that a previous iteration of the 14th Legislative District stretched into parts of Clark County in southwest Washington, about a 3.5-hour drive from his home in Yakima. Going to Pasco — 90 minutes east of Yakima — will require far less time. 

“It’s not that big of a burden to make that trip, and I’ve already made the trip [to Pasco],” he said. “I plan to make it many more times.”

New representatives in the 14th

While King looks to defend his Senate seat in the 14th, the district will have two new state Representatives. 

The seat currently held by Mosbrucker will have a trio of candidates: Kennedy, a Democrat; Eddie Perez, a Union Gap resident who has not listed a party preference and Deb Manjarrez, a Republican from Wapato. 

Yakima’s 14th District State Representative Position 2 candidates Ana Ruiz Kennedy (D), Deb Manjarrez (R) and Eddie Perez (no party preference). (Courtesy of the candidates)

Like Kennedy, Manjarrez has had experience running for office. After an unsuccessful run for Yakima County Commissioner in 2016, Manjarrez remained involved in local politics, serving as chairwoman of the Yakima County Republican Party for several years. 

Manjarrez is white but married into a Latino family and has lived in Wapato, which has a larger Latino population, for decades. 

Manjarrez, who owns an accounting firm and runs an orchard with her husband, said she plans to use that financial experience to help the state run more efficiently and save taxpayer dollars. “I want schools to work better than they do,” she said. “And I want our streets to be safer than they are.” 

In a 2022 Cascade PBS story on Latina candidates, Manjarrez said many Latino and Latina voters in the Yakima Valley align with Republican values, and that would be seen in elections over time, especially with the presence of conservative Latina and Latino legislators. 

“They’re standing up and saying, ‘Look, you don’t own us; you’re not doing my community any good.’” Manjarrez said in 2022. “They’re big influencers on the younger generation.”

Kennedy has extensive public service experience, including serving on a building task force for the Pasco School District and as a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. This post helped her learn more about the state Legislature and its processes. 

Kennedy feels that Latino and Latina residents in the 14th Legislative District and Central Washington have not been represented, and it shows in the ongoing issues residents have faced, including housing affordability. 

She believes the lack of representation has caused a lack of civic engagement from the population. They perceive that politicians don’t care about their voices.

“That’s something I want to change,” she said. 

Eddie Perez has run several times for a seat on the city council in Union Gap, a city south of Yakima. Although he is Latino, Perez considers himself a “blue-collar worker” and feels that class representation is also needed in Olympia.  

Perez said he doesn’t buy into either side’s arguments regarding redistricting. “The far right and the far left are trying to have personal gains rather [than give] people what they want,” he said. 

Like other candidates, affordability is a top priority, along with addressing “fiscal waste” and parental involvement rights. 

The other state Representative race in the 14th features two Latina candidates: Gloria Mendoza, a Republican, and Chelsea Dimas, a Democrat. Andy Kallinen, a Republican from Lyle in Klickitat County, will also be on the primary ballot.  

Yakima’s 14th District State Representative Position 1 candidates Gloria Mendoza (R), Chelsea Dimas (D) and Andy Kallinen (R). (Courtesy of the candidates)

Mendoza was mayor of Grandview in the lower Yakima Valley for a decade before losing a reelection bid last fall. She has expressed concern about the new district. Like other Republicans, she believes the move benefits Democrats more than Latino voters.

“It actually reduced the percentage of Hispanic voters and excised the first Hispanic Latina senator from this area,” she said. “I don’t think that helped Hispanics.” 

The conservative Latino voters who intervened in the voting rights case used 2021 census data to show that the new Latino voter-majority district is just over 50% Latino, compared to over 52% for the 15th Legislative District in the map drawn by the redistricting commission. However, attorneys for those who pursued the voting rights lawsuit said the exact percentage matters less than whether those Latino voter candidates of choice prevail in elections. 

Mendoza said she believes her focus on small government and public safety will appeal to the prevailing conservative voter base, including Latinos. She plans to produce campaign materials in both English and Spanish. 

Dimas said while a Latina legislator is being drawn out of her district, she feels that doesn’t invalidate the process or the concern about voter dilution. What ultimately matters is a system that ensures the success of multiple candidates of Latino descent in the long run, which Dimas believes this new district allows. 

“The decision doesn’t end [Torres’] political endeavors,” she said. “It gives the opportunity for more people like us to get elected.” 

Dimas said she would tap into her previous campaign experience, which included an unsuccessful run for the Sunnyside City Council. However, she noted that she campaigned for a coalition of Latino and Latina candidates who were successful in their bids for the council last fall.  

With many district voters working, Dimas said she aims to make her campaign events more accessible and appealing by offering food and child care. 

“I’m going to have to meet their basic needs,” she said. 

Kallinen shares the sentiment of conservative Latino voters that the new map was an act of gerrymandering, arguing it was done based on race. He notes the conservative voters’ case is in appeals court and believes the map will ultimately not hold up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority.  

Kallinen said that ultimately voters will respond to candidates who cater to their personal, business and community interests, not just their race or ethnicity.  

“Whether my prediction holds true or not, this is the district we have for the 14th, the seat is open, and I think I’m the most qualified candidate for the job,” he said. 

Kallinen, who decided to run after spending 30 years in law enforcement, wants to address what he feels are “overcorrections” in recent changes to state laws that hold police officers accountable for violating citizens’ civil rights or committing other criminal behavior. 

Other priorities included preserving and improving the state’s energy infrastructure and finding “targeted solutions” to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.  

[Full disclosure: Ana Ruiz Kennedy is a Cascade Public Media Community Advisory Board member. The board provides feedback and suggestions on stories and content to engage their local communities but has no authority over the management or operations of the television station or its online news coverage.]

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