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Sue Lani Madsen: Gerrymandering with a twist

When far-left Democrats insisted on gerrymandering a majority-minority legislative district in the Tri-Cities/Yakima area, they were clear in their goal. The website for Redistricting Justice for Washington, a coalition of progressive leaning organizations, pointed to Pasco’s 55% “Latinx” population and claimed they “faced structural disadvantages at the county level … Tri-Citians should get a fair chance of electing someone that represents their communities at the state legislature.”

Naturally there was a lawsuit over the final map because the 15th Legislative District wasn’t sufficiently gerrymandered to suit the identitarians. AP reporting in January 2021 said the lawsuit claimed those pesky white voters “often vote against candidates preferred by Latinos.” The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund was one of the plaintiffs.

So when the Mexican-American daughter of immigrant farmworker parents was elected to represent the district, all of those voices cheered, right?

Not so fast. Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, is in the wrong party from their point of view. It was never about empowering a majority-minority community, it was about electing a Democrat in Eastern Washington. Sen. Torres joins neighbor Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, as two Hispanic members of the Legislature not invited to join the Hispanic caucus.

Torres earned her victory with almost 68% of the vote on her merits and with hard work, the same way she’s navigated the rest of her life. She grew up working alongside her parents in agriculture. Like many immigrants, her parents pushed education as the path upward. Torres graduated from Pasco High School, was a mother at a young age and finished an associate degree at Columbia Basin Community College over time by alternating working with being a student. While working full-time in banking and raising two daughters, she completed undergraduate and master’s degrees in business administration online.

Torres said her biggest complaint about the redistricting maps is how they ignore simple physical connections and access.

“Check the borders of the 15th around the Port of Pasco,” said Torres. She’s right. The gerrymandering is clear where the 15th, 16th, 8th and 9th districts come together.

As a former Pasco City Council member, she knows her district. As a former farm worker, she finds it frustrating when self-identified farm worker advocates in the Legislature with no actual experience in the fields question her lived experience.

Torres emphasized in an interview last month before the end of the regular session that most of the work the Legislature does is bipartisan. Two of her bills, one related to the pesticide commission and one on pesticide application, passed with unanimous support in the House and Senate and have already been signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. A third bill extending a pilot program for farm internships to all counties, also passed unanimously and is waiting for Inslee to take action.

On the disappointing side were two bills tied up by the majority party that didn’t make it out of committee. SB 5477 addressed implementing recommendations of the task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people. SB 5160 would have made organized retail theft a Class C felony.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar problem and especially affects BIPOC communities, the Union Gap mall is being hit hard,” said Torres.

The bill died in the Senate Rules Committee, where a member of the majority party blocked it.

She was adamantly opposed to blocking hospital mergers.

“It would result in more health care deserts,” said Torres, referring to MultiCare stepping in after one of Yakima’s two hospitals closed.

Torres left banking, seeking to prioritize a work-life balance. For the last two years, she has worked across central and Eastern Washington for Western Governors University, a highly rated online university serving the kind of students Torres once was. WGU granted her a leave of absence to serve in the Legislature. It’s the citizen legislator model envisioned by the founders of the country.

Torres knows her gerrymandered communities well but isn’t interested in the identity politics of the left. The new Hispanic senator doesn’t represent the values of the majority party but the majority of her constituents.

She voted no on the final budget which included yet another Snake River Dam study, not a popular proposition in the Tri-Cities.

“We don’t need another study just because the others did not reach the preferred conclusion,” said Torres.

Gerrymandering in the 15th Legislative District didn’t quite work out like the Democrats intended.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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