Groups promoting greater diversity in Northwest Arkansas politics said they were thrilled with Tuesday's election in the region's local races.
Those election results, if final, though unofficial, totals hold, will make Kevin Flores the first Hispanic member of the Springdale City Council after he defeated incumbent Rick Evans. April Legere is the first African American elected to the Rogers City Council, although the results are close and not certified yet.
D'Andre Jones of Fayetteville is in a runoff election to become the only Black member of the Fayetteville City Council. Gayatri Agnew, of south Asian descent, is in a runoff for Bentonville City Council. Kenny Arredondo Loyola also won his bid for the Washington County Quorum Court District 4 seat.
But equally exciting to pro-diversity groups, they said, were the voters who showed up.
"We saw lines of voters at the [Springdale] civic center with more people of color in them than their Anglo counterparts," said Mireya Reith, founder of the immigrant rights group Arkansas United. Her group was joined by others such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement in a 1 p.m. news conference Wednesday about election returns in the region and elsewhere in Arkansas. The conference was by remote video link because of the covid pandemic.
The groups didn't have figures compiled yet of how many eligible Marshall Islander, Hispanic, Black or South Asian voters went to the polls in the region, they said. The groups did encourage turnout and watched the polls, though. Reith's group in particular received more response from prospective voters on how and where to vote than in past elections, she said.
Arkansas United didn't make endorsements in the race, Reith said, but didn't think the votes of minority groups benefited only minority candidates. For instance, Sen. Jim Hendren, a Republican from Sulphur Springs, appears to have received a lot of support from those minority voters because of his decision to co-sponsor a Hate Crimes bill in the legislative session that begins in January, Reith said. The other initial sponsor is Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville.
All speakers at the news conference and Kwami Abdul-Bey of the Peace and Justice group in particular emphasized the election isn't over until every vote is counted and their assistance in helping people vote hasn't stopped. Absentee voters whose ballots were marked as provisional have until Monday to call their local election officials to get their ballots corrected, he said. Those needing assistance can email [email protected] or call (501) 307-9562, he said.
Agnew, a Bentonville City Council candidate in a runoff, ran for the state House as a Democrat in 2018 and lost. The non-partisan nature of city races greatly helped her campaign, she said Wednesday. Legere made the same point about non-partisanship the same day. But defeated Bentonville City Council candidate Kesha M. Chiappinelli said her darker-skinned appearance made the liberal-conservative partisan divide a bigger factor in her race, with people assuming she was liberal even though she's Libertarian. Chiappinelli also said at-large city council races instead of elections by ward is also a major barrier to minority candidates.
"When I ran for the legislature the first questions voters asked was whether I was a Republican or Democrat," Agnew said. "Running for City Council, the first question they ask is something like 'Why can't we get a stoplight at the end of my street?'"
"The big partisan issues are not what matters in these races," Agnew said. Instead the city faces difficult challenges such as what to do about flooding downtown.
The region's excellent quality of life attracted professionals to move here from a variety of places, and the Anglo population is enjoying the benefits of a more varied and creative place to live because of it, Agnew said. That helps wider community acceptance of minority candidates. "The first cricket pitch in Arkansas is going to open here," she said, referring to the playing field for the sport popular in Great Britain, India and other parts of the world. The pitch, or playing field, is set to open when a new park is finished on 28th Street in Bentonville, she said.
A major change diversifying the candidate base in the region was when Walmart decided to allow employees to take a more active role in local politics, Agnew said. The company doesn't endorse candidates but allows employees to play a more active role in the community than in the past, she said.
Legere, the Rogers City Council candidate, decided to run in large part because of her teen daughter. "She needs to see an example that people who look like her can be a leader," she said. The Northwest Arkansas electorate is quickly diversifying, she said. They expect representative bodies to diversify too. "If we want to keep attracting and to keep talent, we have to show that," she said.
Like Legere, Chiappinelli had one white and one Black parent. But Chiappinelli's skin is darker and that, combined with her gender, led to many voters making assumptions, she said.
"I'm actually very conservative on a lot of issues, but didn't want to say I'm Republican because that's really not true," Chiappinelli said. She was able to get over such assumptions with every voter she talked to, but talking to every voter when Bentonville still elects council members at large proved impossible. It also compounded another problem: Campaigns for city office are too expensive, she said.
Arkansas law allows cities with fewer than 50,000 residents to elect their city council members by city-wide election. Larger cities are divided into wards and a council member has to live in a ward to be eligible to run for the seat from there to ensure some geographic distribution.
"I never understood why somebody who doesn't live in my ward gets to vote for my ward's representation," Chiappinelli said.
Bentonville should exceed 50,000 population in this year's U.S. Census results, according to federal Census Bureau estimates.
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.
NWA Election results in races with minority candidates who either won or made the runoff election. Final though unofficial results:
Springdale City Council, Ward 2, Position 2
Kevin Flores … 12,328
Rick Evans … 9,192
Rogers City Council, Ward 3, Position 2
Jerry Carmichael … 11,506
April Legere … 11,656
Washington County Justice of the Peace, District 4
Bill Ussery (R) … 886
Kenny Arredondo Loyola (D) … 1,019
Races with runoffs:
Bentonville City Council, Ward 1, Position 2
Jeff Wadlin … 2,889
Gayatri Agnew … 4,720
Elle Jackson … 3,894
Dylan Shaddox … 2,734
Jeff Matkins … 4,219
Fayetteville City Council, Ward 1, Position 2
Pedro R. Fimbres, Jr. … 1,577
Tanner Pettigrew … 2,413
D’Andre L. Jones … 3,108
Oroo Oyioka … 988
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug