Why does this out-of-touch white dude represent a 54 percent majority Latino district in Eastern Washington?
Why does this out-of-touch white man represent a 54 percent majority Latino district in Eastern Washington? WA.GOV

On Monday, I wrote about state Senator Jim Honeyford's controversial remarks during a committee hearing last week: "The poor are more likely to commit crimes, and, uh, colored most likely to be poor," he said, expressing skepticism about a common sense proposal to assess the racial impacts of government policies. Then on Tuesday, speaking to a local TV station, Honeyford not only stood by his comments, but threw out this doozy in an attempt to defend what he'd said: "They were talking about people of color and that's not just the negro or the hispanic—it's the whole group of minorites."

In response to our story, the senator called Slog "an electronic paper" and complained that the headline ("Republican State Senator: Poor, 'Colored' People Are More Likely to Commit Crimes") didn't reflect the "spirit" of his comments. "He's not sorry," the Yakima Herald reported just yesterday. Meanwhile, Honeyford and the Senate Republican Caucus wouldn't return my calls seeking comment.

But in the last couple days, the remarks by the 76-year-old Republican senator caught the attention of national outlets like MSNBC and The Root.

Then, this morning, Honeyford had a revelation! In a statement, he said he's deeply sorry and he didn't mean to offend anyone.

His apology doesn't make this question go away, though: Why does an out-of-touch white guy who thought it was okay to talk about "colored" and "negro" people, and "the hispanic," represent a 54 percent majority Latino district in Eastern Washington?

I asked Mateo Arteaga, a board member of the state's Latino Civic Alliance, who lives in Yakima. He said Honeyford, who was a policeman in Ellensberg in the '60s, was one of his schoolteachers in junior high.

"He's a very powerful man," Arteaga explained. "That's what makes it difficult for people to hold him accountable."

"A lot of people make those same comments in private," he said. "He made his in public. And that's offensive for someone who represents the 15th district. Will he learn? Probably not."

In the November 2014 election, Democrat Gabriel Munoz, a 34-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq, challenged Honeyford for the senate seat. But the Yakima Herald's editorial board endorsed Honeyford, praising him for creating a water storage system that "pulled together a variety of stakeholders and competing interests."

Munoz, speaking by phone, told me Honeyford represents a particular swath of interests: those of conservative white voters.

"I basically believe he has something against the Latino community," Munoz said, "and he shows it every day."

Aside from his racial views, Munoz said, Honeyford has taken positions that hurt his Latino constituents. He led an attempt to bar undocumented workers, many of whom work on the area's apple, pear, and grape farms, from getting driver's licenses. He also voted against the state version of the DREAM Act, which allows the children of undocumented parents to apply for financial aid to attend college.

This is the young Army veteran who challenged Honeyfords for the 15th District state senate seat last year.
This is Gabriel Munoz, the Army veteran who challenged Honeyford's for the Eastern Yakima state senate seat last year. Courtesy of Gabriel Munoz

"We don't have any Latino leaders in politics out here," Munoz lamented. The state senator and both representatives of the district are white male Republicans. So is the mayor of Yakima. That discrepancy, between a white political establishment and majority Latino population, is also in play in Pasco, where the police shooting of an unarmed man caused days of protests.

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Honeyford outspent Munoz by more than $100,000 in the campaign for the senate seat last year, and beat him by nearly 50 percentage points.

"People would tell me to go back to my country," Munoz said, referring to comments he heard when he went knocking on doors during his campaign. "That's how bad it is out here."

But local Spanish-language media outlets are beginning to report on Honeyford's controversial racial comments, Munoz said. "If this would have happened during my campaign," he added, "I think it would have been a totally different conversation." Munoz said he is strongly considering running again for office.