- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - In the wake of a federal court lawsuit, Hispanic candidates have for the first time been elected to the Yakima City Council.

Two Latina candidates won council seats on Tuesday and a third was leading her opponent.

This was the first election since the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the city under the federal Voting Rights Act, demanding that the community’s election system be changed to give Hispanics a better chance of winning elections.

Yakima, which has about 90,000 residents, is about 40 percent Hispanic. The agricultural community is 140 miles east of Seattle.

“The ACLU’s voting rights case was intended to give Latinos in Yakima their rightful voice on the City Council, after decades of being shut out from representation,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the group. “We are thrilled with this historic election that ensures the Latino community will have seats at the table when decisions are made.”

The state Democratic Party also praised the outcome.

“A Latino will sit on the city council for the first time in Yakima’s history,” said Jaxon Ravens, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party. “Largely due to the Voting Rights Act, a community that had been disenfranchised will now have a voice in their local government.”

The outcome shows the state needs to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act, which has stalled in the Legislature, Ravens said. “We need what happened in Yakima to ripple across the state,” he said.

The Democratic Party hired a field organizer in Yakima and organized a get-out-the-vote drive, Ravens said.

The number of Hispanic residents has exploded in the central portion of Washington in recent decades, with some communities becoming majority Hispanic. But political clout has not followed the population gains.

Yakima’s Hispanic population quadrupled from 1990 to 2010, with many new residents drawn to work in the region’s agriculture and food-processing industries.

In 2012, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of two Latino residents, alleging that Yakima’s hybrid of district and at-large voting for City Council races was suppressing that group’s voice in public representation.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice ruled in favor of the ACLU and in February ordered that an all-district system be adopted. Several of the districts contained a majority of Hispanic residents.

The city has appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Tuesday, Latina candidates Dulce Gutierrez and Avina Gutierrez were easily winning election in two City Council districts. In a third race, candidate Carmen Mendez held a narrow lead over Kelly Rosenow.

Gutierrez, who has a degree from the University of Washington and works for Yakima Valley Hops, said she never imagined she would one day represent northeast Yakima, where she grew up.

“No one ever door-belled my neighborhood,” Gutierrez, 26, told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Tuesday night. “No one was ever coming around to put that idea in our heads that we could serve in city government.”

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