During last week's public testimony to the state Redistricting Commission, Vancouver citizen John Milem, an all-star redistricting nerd, criticized the commission for its emphasis on race; the Democratic and Republican commissioners had deadlocked in the 11th hour over creating a majority-Latino district in Yakima's 15th Legislative District, with Democrats proposing a district with a near supermajority of Hispanic residents.
Milem, an earnest civic geek, sounded a contrarian note after months of testimony and orgnaizing that had been dominated by liberal activists who were calling for the creation of a majority-minority district.
But accusations of playing identity politics are a more apt criticism of the conservatives on the committee who were trying to dilute the political clout of Latino residents.
The commission eventually agreed on a 15th District configuration that gave Hispanics a majority at 54.5 percent (given the demographics on the ground— it was simply unavoidable). But when you compare the Democratic proposal for a 61 percent Hispanic majority to the Republican proposal, it's clear that the conservatives are the ones who laid down awkward and strained lines based on race.
"Looking at the maps it is clear to us that the Latino vote was diluted between the 14th and 15th legislative districts," says George Cheung, Director of the Win/Win Network, a progressive non-profit. "We are disappointed that partisan interest were held above keeping communities of interest together."
The following maps show the competing proposals: the Democratic proposal, designated by a blue line, and the GOP proposal by a black line. The green bloc is the city of Yakima proper.
The Democratic proposal simply divides Yakima evenly between the 14th and 15th Districts, while the Republican proposal pushes the 14th further east into Yakima, awkwardly separating the northern and southern parts of the city.
If you overlay the proposals onto a demographic map of Yakima—the darker the section, the higher the Hispanic population—you can see that the Republican proposal awkwardly yanks heavily Hispanic districts out of the 15th, putting them in the whiter 14th, where their electoral power will be diluted. Simultaneously, the GOP proposal diminished Hispanic representation in the 15th.
Democratic proposal, 61% Latino
Republican proposal, 54.5 % Latino
Former Republican state representative and founding chair of the Washington Retail Association Tom Huff, the Republican appointee to the bipartisan commission that worked out the 15th compromise, says the 14th and 15th Districts are both intertwined with the city of Yakima. He explains his conundrum reasoning that it was a bit of a no win situation because the Hispanic bloc would have been diluted in either case: "If you increase the Hispanic population in one [district], it's going to affect the other."
Huff says he "never had a problem with the 15th as a Hispanic-majority district, " and says simply: "the 54.5 was the negotiated number"—one that he thought was still too high. "Look at in the context of the [former] Hispanic population in the 15 [46.9 percent, according to the commission]. It's trending Hispanic, but 54.5 is way ahead of the trend."
He also points out, in the context of charges of gerrymandering, that he was the only commissioner to propose a majority-minority district [at the Congressional level] that met activists' demands to create an open seat. The final proposal, to his disappointment, included a minority-majority district with an incumbent already there, US Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA, 9)
Ultimately, he says, "redistricting should be about the movement of people and should have nothing to do with skin color."
Former Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, one of the Democratic appointees, says that getting a Latino majority "wasn't the only consideration, but it certainly was a consideration. In that area the predominant ethnic group is now Latino."
He says his side's proposal for 61 percent was "more reflective of the dominant character of the area," but "to get a deal done and get out of there, we let the Republicans draw the boundary on the 15th and said we would accept it at a minimum 54.5 percent Latino."
According the 2010 Census, people of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 45 percent of Yakima County overall (white, non-Hispanic is at 47 percent). Statewide, Hispanics make up 11 percent of the population. The 15th is the first majority Latino state legislative district in the state, along with three minority-majority legislative districts that fall within the Congressional 9th in South King County.
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