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CARRILLO: Running for Springdale City Council. Jared Sorrells

Springdale is one of Arkansas’s fastest-growing and most diverse cities. According to an estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, just 48.7 percent of its population was non-Hispanic white in 2019. And yet a person of color has never held elected office in city government. Every member of the eight-person city council is white.

This year, however, that may change. When they cast ballots this November, voters will see the names Mayra Carrillo, Derek Van Voast and Kevin Flores. Carrillo is Mexican-American, Van Voast is Black and Flores is Salvadoran-American.

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Latinos have a growing voice in Arkansas, particularly in the northwest corner of the state. Political organizers say a younger generation has found that voice after seeing their parents keep silent out of fear of consequences from employers and others in positions of power.

“I think, more than ever, we’re speaking out in a way that our parents couldn’t, because our parents were afraid to speak out,” said Manuel Tejada, vice chair of the Arkansas Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

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“The activism’s been there, but we’re starting to see more of an entrée into electoral politics,” said Xavier Medina Vidal, the Diane D. Blair Professor of Latino Studies at the University of Arkansas.

In 2005, an Associated Press article noted Arkansas had just a single Hispanic elected official, a justice of the peace in Chicot County. That year, four Latino candidates ran for state and local public offices. Only Jorge Garcia, a candidate for justice of the peace in Garland County, was successful. It was the first time the state had seen a Latino person run for an office higher than school board, according to the AP. Arkansas’s Latino population was around 100,000 at the time.

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In the years since, that number has doubled to over 200,000. At least 13 Latino candidates are running for public office in Northwest Arkansas this November.

Few places in the state have changed as dramatically as Springdale, whose population grew from about 30,000 in 1990 to over 80,000 in 2019. The city looks vastly different today than it did a few decades ago. In 1990, Springdale was 1.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1 percent Pacific Islander or Asian, and 0.1 percent Black. In 2019, it was an estimated 36.3 Latino, 9.2 percent Pacific Islander (primarily Marshallese) or Asian, and 2.4 percent Black.

But while Latino candidates have won seats on city councils in other Northwest Arkansas cities with smaller Latino populations — Octavio Sanchez was elected to the Bentonville City Council in 2014 and Sonia Gutierrez was elected to the Fayetteville City Council in 2018 — Springdale has been a different matter.

This year, with a diverse slate of candidates, many of the ideological divisions that have played out on the national stage have become flashpoints in the Springdale city council elections. Foremost is the issue of the police and its contentious relationship with minority populations. There is also the question of representation: Can an all-white council speak for a rapidly diversifying city?

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Arkansas cities may choose whether to elect their council members by ward, on an at-large basis or a combination of both. Springdale is divided into four wards, each with two seats on the council. To run for a seat in a particular ward, a candidate must live there. However, all voters in the city get to vote in the race — not just the voters who live within that ward. This means Springdale as a whole chooses all eight seats on its council, potentially making it more difficult for neighborhoods made up of mostly minority residents to have an impact on elections.

Jay Barth, a Hendrix College emeritus professor of politics, co-authored a 2015 research paper examining the subject in Little Rock, where the at-large seats have long been contested through lawsuits. Barth and his co-authors found an at-large system tends to favor certain types of candidates.

“Looking at that issue here [in Little Rock], we found that, indeed, at-large reps were more likely to be white, more likely to be male — more likely than ward reps,” he said. “When you’re dealing with ward elections, there are other kinds of capital beyond political money, such as one’s work in the community network, that can really make up for some of the money that is necessary for a larger electoral environment.”

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Four members of Springdale’s city council have served for nearly 20 years. Rick Evans, Kathy Jaycox and Jeff Watson have been on the board since 1999. Mike Overton has served since 2001, except for an absence from 2003-04. The others’ start dates range from 2013 (Mike Lawson) to 2019 (Brian Powell and Amelia Williams). Members serve four-year terms with no term limits.

The candidates for Ward 1, Position 2, are Randall Harriman and Mayra Carrillo. The seat is now occupied by Jim Reed, who was appointed in April to fill a vacancy.

Twenty-six years ago, when he was a sixth-grader in a Springdale public elementary school, Harriman said, there was just one Latino student, a boy from Puerto Rico. The next year, he said, when he moved to junior high, he noticed there were more students who didn’t look like him. This was the mid-’90s, when Springdale’s Latino population was beginning to grow significantly, in large part drawn by jobs in the poultry industry.

Around the same time, his opponent for the seat, Mayra Carrillo, and her family moved to Springdale from California. Her experience was similar to Harriman’s: For much of her time at Springdale High School, she was among the few Latino students in her class.

Their experiences were radically different from those of their children, who now attend Springdale schools. According to the Arkansas Department of Education, almost half of students in the Springdale School District are Hispanic. (Much like political representation, the composition of the teacher corps has not kept pace, though the district is making progress. Just 64 of the 1,436 certified teachers in the district are Hispanic, according to a district spokesman. Ten years ago, there were only 29.)

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Carrillo, 41, who works in human resources, obtained U.S. citizenship in 2010. She said she was inspired to get involved in politics by Irvin Camacho, a young Latino activist in Springdale who unsuccessfully ran for the state House of Representatives in 2016. As COVID-19 kept her at home this spring, she found herself asking what she could do for her community and decided to run for office herself.

Harriman, 38, who works in banking, said his candidacy is an extension of his previous public service work — as a volunteer for the Springdale Chamber of Commerce and a member of the board of the NorthWest Arkansas Community College Foundation. If elected, he said, he’d like to start a roundtable with leaders from Springdale’s various communities and to hire “ambassadors” who can help build bridges to the Marshallese and Latino populations.

However, Carrillo said that it is one thing to be an ambassador to communities of color but another to be a product of those communities. “The community’s just gotten bigger and then the city council members continue to be the same,” she said. “And it is not the members’ fault. I mean, someone has to run to be able to be part of it.”

The election has been shaped by tensions over the national reckoning on race and policing. In early September, Walt Williams, the husband of councilwoman Amelia Williams, shared a series of screenshots of deleted Facebook posts from Carrillo’s personal page about defunding the police and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Bentonville cops are filthy fucking liars,” she wrote in a post from June 1, referencing a clash between police and protestors in Bentonville following the killing of George Floyd. Police and protestors offered differing versions of the events that led up to officers firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. Williams’ screenshots were shared more than 800 times.

Carrillo later issued a lengthy statement explaining, in part, that her experience as an immigrant woman has shaped her attitudes toward law enforcement. “I may get loud about issues I care deeply about, but the truth the people spreading those posts don’t want you to know, is that I will bring that same love and passion to fighting for you,” the statement said.

Harriman said he’s come out as the pro-police candidate in response. “You know, my children [are] in school, and I want a school resource officer there,” Harriman said. “And so, you know, I’ve been more vocal about the pro-police than I would have ever imagined I had to be.”

Tensions have also emerged in the other two races featuring candidates of color.

At a July 14 Springdale City Council meeting, longtime Ward 2, Position 2, Councilman Rick Evans was recorded on a hot mic calling his challenger, Kevin Flores, “some little Mexican lawyer.” Evans later apologized; Flores could not be reached for comment.

The candidates for Ward 4, Position 2, are Derek Van Voast and Mark Fougerousse. (Incumbent Kathy Jaycox dropped out of the race in September.) In early September, Van Voast, who is Black, posted a photograph on social media showing a white styrofoam plate with the message “Your n***** brother better go away” scratched into the surface with blue ink. Van Voast said the plate had been left at the home of his mother and brother, both of whom are white.

Van Voast reported the incident to the Springdale Police Department but said he was told by an officer that there was little the police could do. A spokesman for the department said there is an open investigation and the police report could not be disclosed.

Jared Sorrells
DEREK VAN VOAST: Speaks to supporters at an event in Springdale in September.

Known locally as “Coach V” (he spent many years as a coach in Northwest Arkansas schools), Van Voast, 40, decided to run for office following the failure of his furniture delivery business due to fallout from COVID-19.

Van Voast said he’s had second thoughts about running, considering the ugliness of the race. But he believes his candidacy already has impacted people in his community. “They’re believing. They’re excited. They’re voting and registering at the high schools, the Latino and Marshallese,” he said.

Mark Fougerousse, 53, is a U.S. Navy veteran and environmental, health and safety manager with a long history of volunteer work. He didn’t directly respond to a request for comment on the message found at Van Voast’s family’s house. However, when asked about the racial tensions surrounding the race, Fougerousse wrote in an email, “I am appreciative of all the law-abiding residents in Springdale. I do not support, nor will I get involved with contributing to racial tensions. It is my Christian belief that God created everyone equally and they should be treated this way.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.