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The streets of Pasco


In downtown Pasco

Walk or drive around the city of Pasco, and the Hispanic feel of the place is clear, and strong. You’ll see more than small traces of Hispanic communities in many other communities in the Northwest, in Hillsboro or Woodburn, Oregon, or Caldwell or Rupert, Idaho, to cite a few examples.

But not to the degree at Pasco, where you could wonder for a moment or two if you’ve accidently slipped south of the border. On our last trip there a few weeks back, we were strcuk more than usual by the number of Spanish-language business signs dominant almost everywhere except the main drags, where the national chains were still most visible.

All of this might have sunk in more strongly if we’d noticed the latest Census figures for Franklin County (of which Pasco is the seat), and its neighbor to the north, Adams County. Those two have become the Northwest’s first counties where the Hispanic population is an absolute majority – about 57% in Franklin and 52% in Adams, which is much smaller.

A useful Associated Press piece on the Hispanic growth at Pasco outlines some of the ways the city, and the local area, is changing. (It’s worth noting that of the cities in the Tri-Cities, Pasco appears to be much more Hispanic than Kennewick, Richland or West Richland.) The raw numbers are substantial: Census estimates put Pasco at 34,022 in 2000, and very nearly at 50,000 now – growth of almost 50%, about 16,000 people, in six years. As the AP story indicates, nearly all of that growth seems to be in the Hispanic population. And, of course, this growth is not new; the growth spurt started in the late 90s.

The social and cultural effects of all this are various. Here, we’ll take a quick look at the political.

In 2000, Franklin County cast 13,614 votes for president; in 2004, they cast 16,158. In 2006, Franklin County voters cast 13,034 ballots. We haven’t, in other words, seen an increase in voting that matches the increase in population. Put another way, the Hispanic voting base hasn’t been turning out. True, some may not be voting because they’re not in town legally. But that surely doesn’t account for it all, or for most.

Franklin’s voting patterns have remained fairly constant up to now. It has been a solidly Republican county for a long time – on the presidential, congressional and gubernatorial levels, it has been firmly Republican for more than a quarter-century. (Before that, back into the 70s and prior, it split ballots with some regularity.) But what will happen if many more of those prospective Hispanic voters register and vote?

You may get some indication from the precinct voting patterns, which we checked through on our last visit to town. While Franklin overall is strongly Republican, a Democratic base has developed and is growing in central and southern Pasco, a particularly Hispanic area of town. Those precincts run strongly counter to the county overall, and we saw some indications they are growing.

South-central Washington is one of the areas around the Northwest where the immigration debate has been especially heated. Part of the reason may be the local increase in Hispanic population – change generates reaction. But anti-immigrant rhetoric can easily breed a counter-reaction, and the raw materials to make it matter – a large and till-now untapped Hispanic vote in Franklin County – are available.

Republicans and Democrats alike may need to keep watch on Pasco. Both parties may be sitting on a significant political time bomb here.

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