A shifting political landscape

The Snohomish County Council’s appointment of Lillian Ortiz-Self to the state House on Tuesday marks a subtle shift in the political landscape. For the first time in state history, four Hispanics — two hailing from Snohomish County — serve in the Legislature.

Why has it taken this long, and what do their districts and biographies reveal about Washington’s evolving demographics?

Ortiz-Self was the first choice of Democratic precinct officers to replace Rep. Marko Liias who moved to the Senate, succeeding Sen. Paull Shin, who resigned. The shuffling comes on the heels of Rep. John McCoy’s move to the Senate, replacing Nick Harper, with June Robinson tapped as McCoy’s successor (readers won’t be quizzed on the political dominoes.)

Ortiz-Self is an impressive public servant, working as a counselor at Everett High School and serving as chair of the Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs. Her political smarts and K-12 expertise inform her legislative priorities. She joins the dean of the state’s Latino delegation, Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, along with Rep. Monica Jurado Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle.

It’s a diverse quartet with a few common threads, illustrative of what’s right and what needs mending in electoral politics.

“It’s interesting that all four Latino legislators are Democrats representing overwhelmingly white legislative districts in Western Washington,“ Moscoso said. “While there are several majority-minority counties in Eastern Washington with over a 50 percent Latino population, the region has only elected one Latina to the state legislature, the late Rep. Mary Skinner.”

Optics are deceiving. The implicit message whenever a minority candidate is elected in a white, suburban district is that we live in a post-racial society. It’s an illusion underscored by the recently closed race exhibit at the Pacific Science Center: Electing an African-American president didn’t translate into a race-blind America.

In Eastern Washington, the problem is systemic: Lawmakers need to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act.

The WVRA will allow classes of voters to challenge at-large voting if a pattern of racial polarization is established and minority populations are subsequently elbowed out. If the evidence is compelling, then a more-representative district-based system is created. It’s bracingly fair. And democratic.

Olympia will track the arc of history and embrace voting rights, if not this session, then very soon. Moscoso and Ortiz-Self can lead the way.

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