Arkansas Elects First Openly Transgender Candidate to Office

After the original candidate dropped out of the race due to health reasons, Evelyn Rios Stafford took her place and is now the first transgender person elected to office in Arkansas.

Headshot of Evelyn Rios Stafford
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Rios Stafford

Evelyn Rios Stafford’s election experience was a unique one. She ran for office without having her name on the ballot. Candy Clark was the original Democratic candidate for Justice of the Peace for Washington County District 12.

“Unfortunately she suffered a stroke a couple months ago and due to that, she made the really tough decision to drop out of the race,” Rios Stafford says.

The Democratic Party was allowed to appoint a replacement so they held an election and Rios Stafford was selected in September. That didn’t leave a lot of time to organize before Election Day so she says the it was a “really quick kind of seat-of-the-pants sort of campaigning.”

It took a little bit to figure out messaging, but Rios Stafford says they boiled it down to “vote for Candy Clark to elect Evelyn Rios Stafford.” Running during a pandemic changed campaigning dramatically, she says. For example, Rios Stafford and her team chose not to knock on doors.

“We did not want to put people’s health in jeopardy just to run a political campaign,” she says. “So we did no-contact canvassing where we left door hangers on people’s doors and we relied on phone calls.”

They also spread the word through social media and digital campaigns. Rios Stafford says the Washington County Election Commission helped by including slips of paper with absentee ballots to explain the situation and posting notices at voting booths.

Unofficial results show Rios Stafford defeated Republican Todd Edwin Crane with 65 percent of the vote to become the first openly transgender candidate elected to office in Arkansas. However, having the distinction of being the first is not why she ran. Rios Stafford would rather be known for what she does and who she is.

“But I also believe that it’s important for a couple reasons,” she says. “One is visibility. When people get to know someone who is LGBTQ, they’re far more likely to support equality. And the other reason is when there’s positive role models, living and thriving, it allows other people to imagine new possibilities for themselves.”

Rios Stafford says it’s her understanding that she is also only the third or fourth Latinx person to ever serve on the Washington County Quorum Court, another example of how representation is important.

“I think that Washington County is a very diverse county, it’s becoming more diverse every year, and our elected representation hasn’t necessarily been keeping up with that diversity,” she says. “It’s good to see those sorts of changes happening.”

Photo of Kenny Arredondo Loyola
Photo courtesy of Kenny Arredondo Loyola

Adding to the diversity of the court next year is Kenny Arredondo Loyola, who won the election for Justice of the Peace District 4. The Quorum Court is comprised of 15 members who are elected to two-year terms.

One of the most important things a Justice of the Peace does is perform marriage ceremonies, Rios Stafford says. A JP is often chosen by secular, interfaith or same sex couples and Rios Stafford says she believes everyone should have a choice of someone they feel comfortable with performing their marriage.

“I’m a strong supporter of marriage equality; I believe that no matter who you are, who you love, that your wedding day should be just as special as mine was,” she says. “And so I’m glad to be able to provide couples with a choice of someone that they feel comfortable with performing their wedding ceremony.”

The Quorum Court is like a city council, but for county government, Evelyn Rios Stafford says, so its members do more than just marry people. The Quorum Court is the legislative body of county government and a lot of its duties involve working with budgets, she says. Accountability and transparency were a big part of Rios Stafford’s campaign and she says Quorum Court members should question county decisions.

“They shouldn’t just be a rubber stamp for the decisions of the county judge,” she says. “We should really look carefully at everything and ask tough questions when they need to be asked.”

Although her term as Justice of the Peace has not yet started, Rios Stafford is already having an impact simply by providing representation for the LBGTQ and Latinx communities.

“Since that news started going out, the number of young LGBTQ people who I’ve noticed who’ve started following me on social media, it really touches me,” she says. “It really makes me feel gratified that hopefully I’m being a role model for the next generation.”

Rios Stafford begins her term on the Washington County Quorum Court in January.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.