FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Tuesday’s elections marked history in Northwest Arkansas for a number of reasons. In Washington County, voters chose the first transgender elected official in state history.
Evelyn Rios Stafford took in more than 65% of the unofficial vote in her race for Justice of the Peace, District 12.
“I think it sends a message that no matter who you are, you can succeed in anything you want in life,” Rios Stafford said.
Rios Stafford said she was around 19 years old when she knew she would transition from male to female.
“I transitioned when I was in my 20s,” Rios Stafford said. “I transitioned on the job. I was working as a journalist.”
Now a JP elect, Rios Stafford said her identity is only part of who she is.
“I’d rather be known for what I do than who I am,” Rios Stafford said.
The journey to election was unique for Rios Stafford.
“I wasn’t the original candidate in this race,” Rios Stafford said. “The original candidate was Candy Clark.”
After suffering from a stroke, Clark decided to drop out of the race for District 12. This left an opening that Rios Stafford filled.
“The ballots had already been certified, so Candy Clark’s name was on the ballot instead of mine,” Rios Stafford said.
Prof. Janine Parry is a political scientist at the University of Arkansas. She said the work Clark did leading up to the election set solid groundwork for Rios Stafford to step in and have a successful platform.
“This is someone who’s done the work in local politics, is well known, following on the work on somebody else who had done the work and is well known,” Parry said.
Through local work with the Democratic Party, Rios Stafford was able to get the word out about the campaign switch because of contacts she’d built.
“She’d built a wide circle of friends through a lot of her volunteer work,” Parry said.
Now that Rios Stafford has become the first trans elected official in Arkansas, Parry said it’s likely the state will have a ripple effect—more trans candidates will run for office.
“It’s a small thing, but it’s part of something that we know from scholarship will get much bigger,” Parry said.
Rios Stafford said she’s been attending quorum court meetings and has a plan in place to work on the county budget, and she hopes to be a key cog in discussions about how to reduce jail overcrowding after the pandemic ends. While she plans to focus more on her work, she took time to reflect on her standing as a groundbreaker in Arkansas history, noting that it sends a strong message to young LGBTQ+ people.
“[I want] to show folks that your dreams and your identity are not mutually exclusive,” Rios Stafford said.