After turning out in record numbers to help re-elect President Barack Obama last fall, Latino voters are in the spotlight as changemakers in politics. But for all their rising influence at ballot boxes, in many places, Latinos remain conspicuously absent from ballots themselves. That's especially true in Skagit County, Wash., where Latinos comprise 17 percent of the population but hold no public offices. No Latinos serve on any of the seven school boards; none are on any of the town or city councils.
Some Latino community leaders point to an election system that allows the majority outside of a district to choose that district's representatives, and a lack of examples of Latino elected officials as reasons.
"There's a whole group of citizens that are on the fringes of being represented," said Gustavo Ramos, executive director of the Skagit County Housing Authority and organizer of the county's Latino Chamber of Commerce. "... (I'm) not faulting anybody that's in elected office now, but it's a matter of having a complete understanding of your community you're representing. Some of us who are Latino who were born in this country have an understanding of this culture and this country but have a cultural understanding (as well)." A growing population
Latinos account for most of the population growth in Skagit County. About 6 of every 10 new people in the county in the past decade were Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census.
By 2010, Skagit County had 71 percent more Hispanic or Latino people than in 2000. In the same time period, the amount of people not in that group grew by just 6 percent.
In Mount Vernon especially, the numbers stand to increase with the next generation. About half the students in the school district are Hispanic. It is by far the highest proportion of Hispanic students in any district west of the Cascade Mountains, said Mount Vernon School Board President Robert Coffey.
However, no one on the school board is Hispanic.
Coffey said no Latinos have applied for the past few vacancies on the board, but he hopes some do in the future.
"I think that that's probably one of the areas that's more needed right now because that's the future of our society," Ramos said.
Latinos are underrepresented in city government, too. Mount Vernon has the county's highest Latino population -- in one neighborhood the census measures, they're a comfortable majority -- but not one City Council member is Latino.
Although some Latinos in Skagit County are migrant or seasonal workers, and some cannot run for office because they are undocumented, these groups do not comprise the entire Latino population here. Plenty are eligible, but none are elected.
"Skagit deserves to have leaders that represent the diversity of the community," said Sarah Bishop, a Skagit County organizer for OneAmerica, a nonprofit focused on empowering immigrant communities. "... We hope that in the future, the children growing up in Skagit will see representatives in the government that share their experiences and background."
City councils typically have members from particular portions of the city, usually called wards, plus one at-large member who represents the city as a whole.
Except in Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley, these representatives are elected not only by their wards, but by the entire city. The board of county commissioners works this way, too: Each district votes on its own candidates in the primary, then the whole county elects all the commissioners.
Under this model, even if a given candidate is popular in her district, she can lose in the general election because the rest of the county likes her opponent better. This can mean the people who end up representing an area on a council or board aren't always the people who best represent that area.
A bill known as the Washington Voting Rights Act is looking to change that. Modeled after a similar law adopted in California in 2002, it would give local governments a way to reform their election systems by getting rid of this at-large voting. If they do not, and citizens are unhappy with their local election model, the law would give these people legal recourse in state courts.
Many community organizations such as OneAmerica that advocate for Latinos support the Washington Voting Rights Act in hopes that it would make election systems more fairly represent Washington's minorities.
A similar proposal failed in the previous Legislature, but Rep. Luis Moscoso and Sen. Sharon Nelson, the bill's sponsors, are trying it again.
The current bill passed the state House of Representatives 53-44 on March 7. Democrat Reps. Kris Lytton and Jeff Morris voted for it; Republican Reps. Norma Smith, Dave Hayes, Dan Kristiansen and Elizabeth Scott voted against it.
The bill is awaiting discussion in the Senate Governmental Operations Committee.
The area with the highest concentration of Latinos in Mount Vernon is split down the middle, with one side in one city council ward and one in another. Both sides are represented by white men, as are all Mount Vernon council wards.
While Mount Vernon's election model is an example of one that could be changed under the Washington Voting Rights Act, the council still won't have any Latinos on it if none run.
Not seeing diversity in government can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Skagit Immigrant Rights Council chair jim justice.
"If you don't see it, how can you achieve it?" justice said. "In Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley, there aren't even women on the city councils, much less Latinos. So there's a ways to go to get people into office."
Some groups are working to change that. In January, nonprofits OneAmerica and the New American Leaders Project put on the first nonpartisan immigrant candidate training program in the state. Immigrant leaders who hold office around the state taught participants what goes into a campaign.
Although that event was in Yakima -- where representation of Latinos is also disproportionately low -- two people from Skagit County attended, and they're planning to bring home what they learned. A presentation hasn't been scheduled yet, but one is in the works for later this spring, said OneAmerica spokesman Charlie McAteer.
Ramos, who in 1972 was the first person of color elected to the Ontario, Calif., City Council, said being a sizeable group makes civic involvement a duty for Latinos.
"It's our responsibility to train ourselves in that area and develop skills in that area," he said. "(We need to) teach young people the importance of becoming involved in their community and running for elective office."
Tony Sosa, the third generation of a Mexican immigrant family, attended the Yakima training session and plans to run for office sometime soon.
"I would like to do something, one way or another, in one place or another," he said. "I don't want to wait another four years."
Sosa lives in Lyman, works for Sedro-Woolley's parks and recreation department and is a chemical-dependency counselor at Sea Mar Community Health Clinic in Mount Vernon. He also has a radio show on KSVR-FM on which he interviews lawyers and other experts about various issues.
These positions allow him to connect with the community in many ways, he said.
"Working with youth and adults, I see everything. I know what our community needs," Sosa said. "Many people, they see one piece and they don't see the rest of the pieces."
Sosa said most elected leaders pay only token attention to people like him.
"I don't see many people going to the community of the Latinos except when they're looking for the vote. They say 'buenos dias' and they court the vote and they leave. We need people who understand the whole community," he said. "... To understand the farm workers, you have to go to the farm. To understand the person who is hungry, you have to be hungry."
While he decides which office to run for, Sosa said he will help other Latino candidates however he can. Four Mount Vernon City Council seats are up for grabs this year, which Sosa said is a good opportunity for Latinos.
"We have quality people here. We have young people who can run and we have old people who can run, too," he said. "We have to find these people and support them."
Sosa said he hopes to be a role model for other people aspiring to elected office.
"Things are changing," he said. "I was a migrant worker and now I am a professional. Before, I was a farmworker homeboy. Now, it's different. I never in my dreams thought I would go to the White House and see the president of the United States (while lobbying for immigration reform). Now I have experience, I share my experience with the rest of the Latinos and they are thinking, 'Wow, I can do it too.'"
One topic discussed in Yakima was the range of difficulties immigrant and minority candidates can face, including being identified primarily by their race.
"(A news story) doesn't say 'white candidate Sarah Bishop,' but it might say 'Latino candidate Tony Sosa,'" Bishop said. "So race becomes a major factor in a way that's not the case with white candidates."
Candidate or not, a person is more than just race, Ramos said.
"We wanted to represent ourselves ... and represent everyone as a Latino. It just so happens I'm a Latino, but I'm an American and a veteran," Ramos said.
For some, Bishop said, it can be all in a name.
In 2012, Seattle attorney Bruce O. Danielson challenged incumbent state Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez. Despite lacking Gonzalez' experience and endorsements, raising $0 and hardly campaigning, Danielson won every eastern and southwestern Washington county in the primary. He also got 52 percent of Skagit County's vote.
Gonzalez still won overall, but the overwhelming support for his unknown opponent showed how much impact an Anglo-sounding name -- the only thing many voters knew about Danielson -- can have, Bishop said.
Sosa doesn't worry too much about the challenges ahead.
"What I say to the kids and teens is, 'I am Mexican, not Mexican't,'" he said. "It means I can do it. I don't believe in barriers. I don't like barriers. I believe I will fly."
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