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.
He was married for 17 years, owned a construction company and was a Republican when he ran for city council in Lansing, Mich., where he was raised with his identical twin brother until their parents divorced in the 1960s.
Now she says she is celibate, a telecommunications worker who is “just another cog in the machine,” and a Democrat who in 2004 became the first transgender 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 says. “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 popular 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.
“You don’t do that to somebody,” said Robinson, who waited until her 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.
Robinson is challenging a two-term incumbent mayor, former teacher and a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University, affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.
“It doesn’t seem like her chances are high — or there at all,” said Joseph Shafer, a boutique owner in Nampa. “We’re one of the most conservative counties in the state. I think we’re one of the most conservative in the country.”
Shafer also works as a barista at the Flying M coffee shop, where Robinson met on a recent evening with her campaign manager.
“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.”