Graciela Villanueva should have been hosting a victory party on election night, celebrating a successful run for school board in this verdant valley of apples and wine grapes, peaches and hops.
She had already been appointed to the spot on the Yakima School District board of directors, which oversees a student body that is nearly three-quarters Latino. She campaigned hard until the very end.
She also ran unopposed. Jeni Rice, the only other candidate for Position 1, had dropped out of the race months earlier, although it was too late for her name to be struck from the ballot.
Still, 61% of the vote last November went to the woman with the simple Anglo name who hadn’t campaigned. She had agreed that she would not accept the office if elected. Having won, she changed her mind.
Latinos in the Yakima Valley have a long and difficult history when it comes to gaining access to the ballot box and elective office. The population of this county seat in Washington’s agricultural heartland is 41% Latino, and Latinos account for a quarter of all voting-age citizens here. But no one with a Spanish surname has ever been elected to the City Council.
The first federal lawsuit to advocate for the voting rights of the growing Latino minority here was filed in 1968; the most recent federal court fight was decided just a month ago. Villanueva agreed to testify in that suit, Montes vs. City of Yakima, which argued that it is nearly impossible for a Latino to be elected here.
U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled against the city in the Montes case, declaring that “Latino voters are inherently disadvantaged by the framework of the current system,” in which all seven of the City Council seats are elected at large, although four of the members are required to live in specified districts.
Rice said in his ruling that “the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino minority.” His decision was a summary judgment; the evidence was overwhelming, and he called off the trial.
Mayor Micah Cawley said elected officials were holding open the option to appeal while working to comply with Rice’s orders, which direct the sides to come up with a plan for district elections. The city has already spent about $800,000 fighting the suit.
Cawley acknowledges that race relations in his city are challenging. But he said Yakima residents were “progressing in the right direction.” He blames the paucity of Latino elected officials on low voter turnout and candidates who are not of “the right ideology.”
“Pull the stats of registered Latino voters,” said Cawley, who is a country music disc jockey by day. “There’s a very small percentage of people who are voting. If you don’t vote, you’re not going to get a candidate of your choice.”
In some ways, Latinos are embedded in this city of 93,257. The Yakima Herald-Republic has a Spanish-language weekly, El Sol de Yakima. Spanish is a staple on the radio dial here behind the so-called Cascade Curtain, the mountains that separate liberal western Washington from its inland, conservative other half — urban from rural.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations draw thousands to downtown Yakima, where businesses catering to Latinos operate side by side with English-language neighbors. The Yakima Valley Business Times shares a low-slung blue building with La Tiendita del Mexicano. And La Nacional Tortilleria y Abarrotes operates across South First Street from Joe Elders Sundance Auto Sales.
But Rice’s ruling underscores divisions — physical and philosophical — in Yakima, whose Latino population has jumped from 952 in 1970 to more than 37,000 four decades later.
Sixteenth Avenue more or less separates the haves from the have-nots. Nearly three-quarters of the Latino population lives east of the avenue, where a warren of alleys is pocked with graffiti or, if the residents are lucky, smeared with mismatched paint that covers the tags of the city’s gangs.
Some busy intersections in northeast Yakima make do without much-needed stop signs, while quiet streets of million-dollar homes in the city’s wealthier westside neighborhoods sport wide speed bumps and signs that explain they are part of a “residential traffic calming project.”
During a 2008 speech to the Downtown Yakima Rotary Club, then-Mayor Dave Edler bemoaned the closed hearts of some in the area, whose attitudes were thrown into high relief by plans for a regional aquatic center that was never built.
“There’s another thing that’s troubling,” Edler told the crowd. “I’ve already heard this about the aquatic center: ‘I’m not going to vote yes for that aquatic center, because I’m not going to build a place for those Mexicans to swim.’
“And we as a community don’t like to throw that out into the open,” Edler continued. “But I don’t think we can hide from that anymore. Because I believe that it’s the very same sentiment that says, ‘I don’t want to vote for new schools, so those Mexicans will have nice schools.’”
Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said the ACLU knew that “eastern Washington had problems” when it came to Latino representation. The at-large system of electing City Council members here “really stuck out,” she said.
The ACLU wrote to the Yakima council in late 2010, Dunne said, informing officials that the city was in violation of the Voting Rights Act. There was no response. A year later, a measure to institute district elections was on the ballot. It lost. So in 2012, the organization sued.
The hard part was finding residents willing to be involved, Dunne said, because “it was a big deal, a very difficult thing to do, to come forward. People faced economic retaliation, social retaliation.”
Rogelio Montes, the lead plaintiff, ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011. Mateo Arteaga, the second plaintiff, is an administrator and lifetime resident of the Yakima Valley. Neither man would comment about their city or their lawsuit.
Sonia Rodriguez True, however, was willing to talk about her race for City Council, a campaign she undertook before she was married, when she was simply known as Sonia Rodriguez. Her story is cited in Rice’s decision.
The family law attorney has lived in Yakima for 14 years. In late 2008 she saw an ad in the paper for an open seat on the council. She applied, was appointed and became the first Latino to serve as council member. A year later she ran for election to the post.
She lost. To Dave Ettl, a morning talk radio host whostyled himself as a political outsider and beat her by 700 votes.
A Yakima Herald-Republic article on her defeat began with two questions: “Why did Sonia Rodriguez lose her seat on the Yakima City Council when the three other incumbents won by huge margins? Was it the L word? Take your pick: liberal, Latino, lawyer.”
Rodriguez True argues that the answer is the middle one. She was told during her campaign that she’d have a better chance if she changed her name. She was married shortly before election day — hence the addition of True — but it was too late, she said.
“I did good work on the council,” Rodriguez True said. “I had a business. I worked hard. But that one thing I couldn’t change was what got in the way.... It crossed my mind — if I were a white woman, would there have been a challenger?”
Ettl says it was the first “L word” that brought down his competitor; he argues that Rodriguez True is a liberal in a longtime conservative region. In comparison, he said, he is a “known quantity” with years broadcasting his conservative opinions on the radio.
And he pointed out in an interview, in his blog and in comments on the Yakima Herald-Republic’s website that it is the rare Latino who has run for City Council here — just four general election candidates in 40 years.
“There is no racism here,” Ettl said in a recent blog post. “My point is lack of participation is the problem, not racism.”
In fact, as Rice noted in his late-August ruling, “a discriminatory result is all that is required” to find that Yakima violated the Voting Rights Act. “Intent to discriminate is not a relevant consideration.”
Rice’s solution was to order the city to hold district elections after carving out an area where Latinos would be a majority and, therefore, able to elect a candidate of their choosing. The two sides must come up with a consensus plan by Oct. 3.
Villanueva, whose case is also cited in the ruling, is an administrator at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. Her father, Tomas, started the organization decades ago. Villaneuva’s favorite photograph is a 1960s shot of her dad marching with Cesar Chavez.
When asked why she lost an election in which she ran unopposed, she did not hesitate.
“One of the reasons was my Spanish surname,” she said. “Some voters admitted that in the Yakima Herald-Republic comments.”
As for the woman who did not run, did not campaign, but won anyway? Jeni Rice served eight months of her school board term before resigning last month. She did not return calls for comment.
There have been four Latinos elected to the Yakima school board, according to Vickie Ybarra, who served on the board from 2002 to 2010 and was president for five years. All have been elected in the 21st century.
Today, Yakima School District Position 1 remains empty. The board is seeking someone to fill out Rice’s term.
Villanueva does not know if she will apply.