Conservative Latino leaders wary of how disputed legislative district lines will be redrawn

They’re raising concerns that the reworking of the Yakima Valley district could leave eastern Washington’s lone Republican Latina senator without a seat.

By: - September 28, 2023 5:31 pm

Latino leaders (l-r) Maia Espinoza, executive director of Center for Latino Leadership, Gloria Mendoza, mayor of Grandview, Deanna Martinez, deputy mayor of Moses Lake, and Mike Gonzalez, Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, discuss concerns with the possible outcome from a federal court redrawing the disputed 15th Legislative District map. (Photo courtesy of Center for Latino Leadership)

Latino civic leaders on Thursday warned the redrawing of a Yakima Valley legislative district could do more harm than good for communities they represent in south-central Washington.

They said they worry that when a federal judge finishes redoing the disputed map for the 15th Legislative District, it will cost Sen. Nikki Torres of Pasco, Washington’s only elected Latina senator in eastern Washington, her seat.

And they expressed concern that shifting blocs of voters between the 15th and surrounding legislative districts to create a legal map could mute the political influence of conservative Latinos.

“It isn’t just about the 15th District,” said Deanna Martinez, deputy mayor of Moses Lake in the neighboring 13th District. “It is going to have a rippling effect. So we’re here as Latinos living in central Washington, eastern Washington, who want to be sure that we still have a voice because it sounds like the lawsuit wants to take our conservative voice away.”

Cartography by court

Martinez took part in a news conference in Grandview, a day before state attorneys informed U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik that the state Legislature would not reconvene Washington’s Redistricting Commission to determine the district’s future contours, instead leaving the task to the court.

On Friday, state attorneys filed a status report telling Lasnik “it appears clear the Redistricting Commission will not be reconstituted. Accordingly, the adoption of a new, [Voting Rights Act]-compliant map will be up to this Court.”

The state suggests Lasnik appoint a special master to assist in the work. And the Office of the Attorney General said the state will not propose maps for consideration, citing Washington’s statute that requires redistricting plans be prepared by the Redistricting Commission. 

In August, Lasnik invalidated the map drawn by the bipartisan four-member panel in 2021. The district currently encompasses parts of five counties in south-central Washington and is represented by three Republicans, including Torres who was elected in 2022 in the new boundaries.

The judge sided with voters who argued in a lawsuit that the boundaries undermine the ability of Latino voters to participate equally in elections, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Commissioners created a majority-minority district with Latinos comprising 73% of the total population and an estimated 51.5% of voting-age residents.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit made a case that while Latinos are a slight majority of the district’s eligible voters, the final boundaries included areas where their turnout is historically lower and excluded communities where Latinos are more politically active. This fracturing can depress Latinos’ turnout and weaken their voting strength, they argued.

Lasnik said the Redistricting Commission should deliver a redrawn map to the Legislature by Jan. 8, 2024. If it isn’t reconvened, then he said the court would carry out the task.

On Thursday, Martinez was joined by Grandview Mayor Gloria Mendoza, Mike Gonzalez, a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, and Maia Espinoza, executive director of the Center for Latino Leadership.

All four said they worried the final lines could push Torres into a new district where she might have to beat an incumbent Republican to return to the Senate. If she keeps her seat, the new lines could result in her facing a well-financed liberal opponent in the next election.

“The idea that we might be losing representation is very concerning to me,” Martinez said.

She, Mendoza and Gonzalez said they wanted the court to be aware of their concerns as Latino leaders.

“I wouldn’t be here today if I wasn’t trying to influence his decision,” Gonzalez said. Any outcome costing Torres her seat would be a “travesty” and “an injustice,” he said.

Democrats reject redistricting panel

All four said the redistricting commission should get a chance to redraw the 15th, echoing the desires of House and Senate Republicans. 

That isn’t happening because Democrats, who control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, are opposed.

First, Gov. Jay Inslee decided earlier this month not to call a special session for legislators to call the four-member panel back into action. 

Then House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, followed with the announcement they wouldn’t either to the chagrin of Republicans who wanted to give the commissioners a chance. 

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and Deputy House Minority Leader Mike Steele, R-Chelan, on Wednesday renewed their call for letting the redistricting commission try.

Lasnik, after reading news accounts of the majority Democrats’ pronouncement, asked the state for an update by Friday.

In his original August order, Lasnik outlined a process in which the state, the plaintiffs, and a group of intervenors who challenged the district boundaries on different grounds, would submit proposed maps together or separately.

The intervenors, who argued race was given too much weight in the drawing of the boundaries, wanted the map redrawn with a focus on compactness and communities of interest. They’re in the process of appealing Lasnik’s ruling at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a separate case challenging the district map, which a panel of judges dismissed as moot earlier this month, the plaintiff filed a notice on Thursday saying he would appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court

Lasnik’s original timeline – which presumed involvement of the redistricting commission and Legislature – set a goal of enacting a final map in time for next year’s primary election in August.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.