NAMPA, Idaho – About a block from a street concert in downtown Nampa, Melissa Sue Robinson strolls with purpose into a trendy coffee shop – the unofficial liberal embassy of this sprawling Republican stronghold in southwest Idaho.
Dressed in a cream-colored pantsuit, a political flier clutched in one hand, a soft brown leather purse in the other, she orders a mocha and takes a seat as a group of teenagers stare at her from near the door.
The 58-year-old was born male and still carries the slightly larger-than-an- average-woman build of Charles Staelens Jr., who legally changed his name and underwent surgery in 1998 to become a woman. She also kept his voice.
She was married for 17 years, owned a construction company, and was a Republican when she ran for City Council in Lansing, Mich., where she was raised with an identical twin brother until their parents divorced in the 1960s.
Now she says she is celibate, a telecommunications worker, and a Democrat who in 2004 became the first transgender person to run for the state Legislature in Michigan.
This farming and manufacturing town of about 83,000 residents, where a sugar factory and a local hospital are among the biggest employers, doesn’t seem to be all that concerned that Robinson previously lived as a man. But they are scratching their heads that a newcomer, a non-Republican, would run for mayor.
For her part, Robinson says she has been warmly received in Nampa, just 15 miles west of Boise in the sagebrush-ridden high desert. “Idaho has a bad rap,” she said. “I haven’t found a person I don’t like yet.”
There has been one conflict – in cyberspace. Robinson threatened to take legal action against the micro-blogging Web site Twitter after stumbling on a fake account set up in her name under the title: “Woman with a penis.” The account has since been closed.
As an adult, Robinson always thought of himself as a woman but waited until his late 40s before undergoing the gender reassignment surgery.
Her job moved her from Seattle last winter to southwest Idaho, where Nampa is the largest city in Canyon County and a Democrat hasn’t held an elected seat in local government in more than a decade. Sen. John McCain received a landslide 67 percent of the vote here during the presidential election last year.
Mayoral races in Idaho are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates do not have to declare a party.
“People are going to say I haven’t been here long enough, but if you get me behind the mayor’s desk I’m going to run this city,” said Robinson, a self-described activist. “Right now, it’s a good ol’ boys club.”
Robinson says that if she’s elected she’ll bring transparency to City Hall, including televising council meetings. She would also try to give tax breaks to small business and actively recruit corporate jobs.
“It’s time for a change,” said 32-year-old Gerald Walton-Grice, a lifelong Nampa resident.
As for the candidates? “I don’t care if they’re gay, straight, transgender, red, yellow or purple,” Walton-Grice said. “It doesn’t matter.”