October 29, 2008
By MANUEL VALDES
Even though his chances of winning are slim, 22-year-old Christopher Ramirez is running for a seat in the state Legislature to represent a part of Yakima County.
Ramirez is challenging a better-known Republican incumbent who has more money, but the young law student said that just running for office is an important step for the growing Hispanic community. It needs to realize, Ramirez said, that involvement in politics is possible - if not, the outlook is not pretty.
"We'll continue to be marginalized," Ramirez said.
Ramirez's run for office underlines one of the many shifts - some more gradual than others- in the state's population since the last election.
Washington is now more Hispanic than it has ever been. The state is getting older, with its median age increasing from 35.7 to 36.3 between 2004 and 2008. Following national trends, residents 65 years old and over are growing in number, and so is the number of kids moving into the K-12 school system, according to state estimates.
Migration from other states has waned since 2004, but still brings tens of thousands of people, with the majority from California.
The state's population now stands at 6.6 million, up about 400,000 from four years ago, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University, says population changes usually take time to be reflected in the way people vote.
But one of the most striking shifts since 2004 is the solidification of Hispanics' rank as the state's largest minority. Hispanics grew from about 517,000 in 2004 to an estimated 614,000 this year, according to state figures.
Their political clout, though, does not reflect power in numbers.
Asians and African Americans, the second- and third-largest minority groups, have had a bigger impact on politics, be it at the governor's mansion or at the mayor's office in Seattle.
In the Legislature, there are only a few Hispanic lawmakers, and the number may shrink after the election. Rep. Mary Skinner, R-Yakima, retired this year. One of the candidates to replace her - Democrat Vickie Ybarra - is Hispanic, but the race remains close.
Rep. Jamie Herrera, R-Ridgefield, also is up for re-election.
"I think that we'll probably see some gains from 2004 to 2008, in regards to people that register and the people who turn out," said Uriel IÃ±iguez, executive director of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "This election has been very exciting for everyone. But every election, it's 'the Latino vote, the Latino vote,' and every time is not as high as we'd wanted to be."
Unlike other parts of the country where the Hispanic migration started decades or even centuries ago, the majority of Washington's Hispanics arrived relatively recently, with the biggest increase in the last 20 years.
More than 246,000 of the nearly 611,000 Hispanics in the state are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
It's unclear how many of the foreign-born Hispanics are naturalized citizens, permanent residents eror in the country illegally.
But their American children are now getting to be old enough to be politically involved - and to vote.
"We're coming of age with the community," Ramirez said. "Increasingly, we're seeing young Hispanics interested in the community. The outcome of the elections in the past has not been affected by Latino voting. The only way to do that is to get participation."
According to a 2007 study by University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto, 3 percent of all registered voters in Washington were Latino. But his own research found that nearly half of the voting age Latino citizens eligible to vote are registered.
"The data shows, (Hispanics) have a below-average number of voter registrations, the ones eligible are not registering at a similar rate than other minorities," Barreto said.
Some organizations have begun to lay the ground work for more participation, Barreto said.
For Barreto, Hispanics represent a voting bloc that has not been tapped by Republicans or Democrats. He argues that even if the section of the Hispanic population that can't vote is removed, there are still plenty of voters left.
The parties "don't realize it's a two-way street, if you don't feel like you've been invited to the party, you don't feel like showing up," Barreto said.
The immigration debate that dominated politics in 2006 was a rallying a point for many Hispanics, Barreto said. He said Republican opinions on that debate turned many away from the GOP.
"As the Latino population grows, and becomes registered, you'll see Democrats do better," Barreto said. "Ultimately, Yakima County could become a Democratic county."
Source: Seattle Post Intelligencer