By Mónica Mendoza-Castrejón
If you’re a community member here in Kent who’s thinking of running for public office, you’ll be told a variation of this one thing: “If you’re not the favorite of the country club, you’re not going to win.”
If we want a truly just and fair election system in the City of Kent, we will need to change our municipal election system from solely at-large elections to district-based elections. For the last two decades as Kent has become more diverse, we consistently see a number of candidates who reflect Kent’s diversity and stand for election, and only a few make it through. Kent is the 7th most diverse city in the nation, and the most diverse in the State of Washington with a population of over 130,000. We are a non-white majority city, with a majority white council.
What are at-large elections, you might ask? Well, they are the current way that city council elections are run in Kent. They also happen to be, as late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, “a preeminent second-generation way to deny equal opportunity for minority voters and candidates.”
Instead of voting for a representative who is in your neighborhood, you would have to vote for people who are up in every seat, regardless of the neighborhood that you’re in. Additionally, in an at-large election system, it wouldn’t matter where you lived in the city; you would be able to run for the seat. You would have to vote for someone who could be on the opposite end of your city, and there would be a strong possibility that all council members could be from the same part of town. So you could for example, be a renter, and every council member is from the wealthy part of town, and is a homeowner. Do you think that all the homeowners would understand where you are coming from, or be looking out for your interests? Maybe, but there’s a chance that they wouldn’t be balanced toward your interests.
After all, given the immediate outrage and embarrassment among residents, how many of us here in Kent would’ve given a pro-Nazi public servant a million dollars to quit? Yeah. That was quite the facepalm! Great move, Mayor Dana Ralph and Kent City Council.
On Aug. 4, 1965, the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed and enacted into law. Section 2 of the VRA prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in one of the language minority groups identified in Section 4(f)(2) of the act. Here in Washington state, our own version of the Voting Rights Act was passed in 2018, because the ACLU of Washington sued the cities of Yakima and Pasco to adopt a district voting system after they were found in violation of the Federal VRA, in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
In Yakima, prior to the lawsuit, time and time again Latine candidates tried to run, and would lose to white candidates, despite being a majority Latine city. After a lawsuit was won, those of Latine descent finally won, ensuring greater representation. This year, there’s even a bill in the Legislature to strengthen the Washington VRA, Senate Bill 5047, sponsored by Senators Saldana, Trudeau and Nguyen, among others.
For years now, here in Kent, more often than not, Black and Brown candidates in city council races have tried to run, and ultimately fail in winning ,no matter how hard they campaign, even with traditional tactics that would constitute a win, similarly to what happened in Yakima prior to the city council positions changing from at-large to district based. Gwen Allen Carston in 2011 ran, and lost, again in 2015. Tye Whitfield, in 2017, ran and lost to a white woman. In 2019, a slate of Brown candidates from an immigrant background ran, and lost, mostly to white people. In 2021, Cliff Cawthon, a Black man, ran and lost to a white woman. More often than not, regardless of how hard these candidates campaigned, Black and Brown candidates lose to white people, and if they happen to make it through, the predominantly white neighborhoods likely turn out the votes for them. One can’t help but notice similarities in Kent to what happened in Yakima.
Solely being Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color (BIPOC) or young does not guarantee true representation under the Washington VRA. You could be a Black or Brown candidate, but your values, your platform, can represent the white majority instead of the Black and/or Brown majority. As us Millennials say, “just because you’re skinfolk, doesn’t mean you’re kinfolk.” Though, there is a pattern of BIPOC and left-leaning Democratic candidates for local office who do not win no matter how hard they try, especially if their platform appeals more to voters who coincidentally dominate in Congressional and Presidential elections in Kent — even year, non-at-large elections.
The top officials in city government are elected largely by the same political coalition and same interest groups. This isn’t necessarily a money issue. This coalition is one that is more neighborhood based. Based on electoral data, nearly all successful candidates seem to have to court those who live near the Meridian Valley Country Club; in other words, one part of town is the kingmaker — a whiter, wealthier, and older, property-holding part of town. The data is out there: more often than not, BIPOC candidates who ran, and ended up losing in the last two decades, ran on platforms that communities of color, renters, youth and people from low-to-middle-income precincts would feel aligned with. Nearly every one of these candidates lost the votes centered around the country club, and the country club precincts turned out for their own preferred candidate regardless of race (but usually white).
Kent, of course, is different from Seattle, and the argument can be made that we need to get money out of politics across America. Kent doesn’t have a money problem, given that many successful candidates do not outraise their opponents, but Kent has a representation problem. The precincts around Lake Meridian and the country club have a higher voter turnout than the rest of the city, so they have a disproportionate say in a body that is supposed to represent the diversity of our city.
The argument I’m making is simple: greater representation means that a more representative government can exist, and better policy can be made. As a Mexican American woman who grew up in poverty and near homelessness, who frequented the food and clothing bank downtown in Kent, who attended public schools here in Kent, raised by a single mother, I would have loved for someone who shared my perspective to hear me and others in city government. No candidate solely based on their race, ethnicity, politics or age makes them worthy of winning, but they should be able to compete; and the voters should be the final judge of who should represent them. Shirley Chisholm once said if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. The time is overdue: Kent’s residents in every neighborhood deserve a seat at the table.
Mónica Mendoza-Castrejón is a law student at Seattle University School of Law and resident/homeowner in Kent. Send comments to email@example.com.