This November’s election is shaping up to be a blockbuster on the state and national levels — with a close presidential race, and big contests for governor, other statewide offices and the state Legislature. Who wins and who loses will tell us a lot about our priorities and even our mood as a statewide electorate. But of them all, one of the more obscure, local races may turn out to provide the most insight about Washington’s voters.
In Grant County, which includes Moses Lake, Judge David Estudillo is running to retain his seat on the Superior Court bench. Judge Estudillo was born and raised in Eastern Washington. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1960s, starting off as farmworkers, and later opening a small grocery store in Sunnyside, between Yakima and the Tri-Cities, that the family ran for decades.
Judge Estudillo was appointed to the bench last year by Gov. Jay Inslee to fill a vacancy after the retirement of Judge Evan Sperline, then the longest-serving Superior Court judge in the state. Judge Estudillo is the only Latino state judge in Eastern Washington, and is now running, technically as an incumbent, for a full four-year term. Judge Estudillo’s opponent is Nick Wallace, another attorney who applied to the governor’s office for the vacancy that ultimately went to Judge Estudillo.
A contested Superior Court race, particularly one in Grant County, is by its nature a low-profile affair. Few voters in Grant County could even name their Superior Court judges. Almost no one outside of Grant County could name them.
But this race is important because it may tell us how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go, on issues of race and politics here in Washington. Let me explain.
Sometimes numbers don’t lie. This is one of those times. In the 10 counties across Central Washington (Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, Walla Walla, Skagit and Yakima), Latinos constitute more than 33 percent of the total population, yet hold less than 4 percent of the local elected offices. Combined, these 10 counties elect 69 port commissioners, 66 county officers, 51 judges and 30 county commissioners.
Only one judge is Latino: Judge Estudillo. And again, he was appointed, not elected. In other words, although more than one out of every three people in these counties is Latino, less than 2 percent of their elected judges are Latino — 1 out of 51, to be exact.
So, what’s to blame?
Election data show that the main culprit is the predominant at-large election system in both counties and communities, and racially polarized voting. For decades, throughout Central and Eastern Washington, non-Latino white voters have tended to vote for non-Latino white candidates and the Latino voters have tended to vote for Latino candidates — what political scientists call “racially polarized voting.” The additional factor of at-large elections (where candidates must run citywide or countywide) in those jurisdictions that exhibit racially polarized voting makes it almost impossible for a Latino candidate to break through.
In fact, in the 10 counties, 99 percent of all local elections are at-large.1
We witnessed this phenomenon play out in stark terms in 2012, during two state Supreme Court races. One race featured a heavily favored incumbent, Justice Susan Owens, against a little-known challenger, Douglas McQuaid, both of whom have Anglo surnames.
The second race featured another incumbent, Justice Steven González — who, like Judge Estudillo, had been appointed, but who has a Latino surname — against a little-known challenger, Bruce Danielson. But Danielson had one thing going for him: his Anglo surname.
On the face of it, this election didn’t seem like one Justice González should have had to worry about very much. Justice González was a decorated prosecutor, having successfully tried the Millennium Bomber terrorist, Ahmed Ressam, as an assistant U.S. attorney. He was also a well-known judge, having spent 10 years on the King County Superior Court bench. Based on this stellar résumé, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Justice González to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court. (Disclosure: I coordinated and managed Justice González’s appointment campaign and worked on his election campaign.)
For his part, Danielson was a relatively unknown and unaccomplished lawyer. Danielson did not raise any money, and appeared not to campaign at all, failing to appear at events, interviews or candidate forums.
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