How a 23-Year-Old from Idaho Became the Youngest Female Mayor in America
Photography: Elissa Kline
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Then fate, preparation and a perceptive mentor converged to ignite a new chapter in Stauts’ life and in Stanley’s history. This part of the story happens where a lot of Stanley stories begin—in the local bar. Stauts had a casual conversation on political issues with James Denhart, Stanley’s town maintenance manager. As she walked back to her friends, Denhart suddenly turned his head as if he’d had an epiphany and said, “You should run for the mayor of Stanley.” She just started laughing in disbelief, but he was serious. “You’ve got the education,” he said. “You’re a political science major. You’re young. You’re energetic. You’re exactly what Stanley needs right now.” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and said, “These are the keys to the city of Stanley. These could be yours. Just think about it.” And she did.
After getting encouragement from the former mayor, Stauts got the 10 signatures necessary to place her name on the ballot and started introducing herself around town. “My grandpa sent me a campaign contribution of $100 that covered well and above my campaign costs,” says Stauts, smiling. “I sent a letter to every post office box in town explaining who I was and what my experience was and what I hoped to do and letting them know I looked forward to meeting them. And I started going door-to-door to meet people.”
Then she did something that had never been done before in Stanley. She organized a candidate’s forum to debate questions presented by the public. Although she remembers her voice was shaking, her answers helped her realize why she was running. “I really actually did believe in the things I was saying. I did want to be a part of the changes in Stanley—to help preserve this area and the lifestyle it creates.”
And sure enough, on November 8, 2005, she was elected by an eight-vote margin. (Two previous elections had been decided by a coin toss.)
What is a day like in the life of the youngest American female mayor? Her pickup truck pulls up to the town community center where there are always a few shelves full of books outside for people to swap. As Stauts (nose ring no longer in place) enters the town office, she is greeted by the clerk treasurer and heads into her office, where pictures of the Sawtooths decorate every wall. She answers the messages of locals who want to make appointments with her to discuss issues. On the second Wednesday of each month, she heads off to a council meeting in the big community room next to her office.
The council at this time is composed of all men, mostly much older than the mayor. Stauts sits at the center of a long table and runs the meeting with grace. Today the meeting focuses on revising the town’s comprehensive plan—the plan for how the town will look in the future. It is especially important now to have this plan and ordinances in place to support it because a land trust is seeking to sell the land that houses most of the town businesses (including the supermarket and that friendly bar where the new mayor’s future was changed). Stauts and the council have been researching advice from experts to prepare the town for the future sale.
“I want to make sure that the City of Stanley has done everything it can to prepare for change,” says Stauts. “Development will eventually come to Stanley, but rather than sitting back and waiting to see where the cards fall, I want us to direct our town’s destiny. We don’t have to become another small rural Idaho town that fell victim to rapid growth and overdevelopment struggling to hold on to their original ‘small town charm.’ Stanley has the opportunity to take actions now that will help preserve the characteristics of the town that we all hold dear.”
She is hoping for “community-minded and forward-thinking buyers” who will work together with them on Stanley’s future potential while preserving that small town charm.
Some of the issues discussed at the meeting include commercial zoning, a possible Dark Sky ordinance, setting up wireless communications in town, and even the colors of the community’s homes. Earth tones? “We want to keep with our rustic character,” states the mayor. At the end of each discussion, Stauts sums up and assigns everyone, including herself, research to do on different aspects of the issue. When another councilman speaks, she says, “We appreciate the comment.” Her neutrality belies any opinion of her own. She wants all to have a fair say.
Then there is the issue of elk feeding. Stauts suggests a public educational meeting on the matter. Apparently, someone has been feeding the elk, causing them to gather in town and eat trees as well. But the concern is much more complicated and epitomizes the many varied opinions that exist within this small town. The elk feeder is actually an anti-wolf person who says the elk are starving because wolves are keeping them from their natural habitat. >>>