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Running for Change: An Interview with AR-3 House Candidate Caitlin Draper

Caitlin Draper, a licensed social worker and UA alumna, announced her Democratic candidacy for Congress Oct. 24, representing Arkansas’ third district in the House of Representatives. Republican Steve Womack, the position’s current occupant, has held his seat since 2011 and has already announced his plan to seek another term.

Draper moved to Fayetteville in 2007 to attend the UofA, originally pre-medical, before pivoting to a degree in social work. She graduated with a master’s in social work from the UofA in 2015 and opened her private practice in Fayetteville in 2018.

“I think social work really clicked with me because I grew up watching a lot of people suffer,” Draper said. “My older sister has spina bifida, a kind of birth injury. She was born with a spinal cord injury and can’t walk. Being very sensitive to the fact that the world isn’t made for people with disabilities has made me a really strong advocate.”

Helen Cheek, Draper’s colleague and fellow social worker through Healing House Fayetteville, met Draper in 2009 as a classmate in an introductory social work class. They followed similar paths with Cheek earning her master’s in social work in 2019. 

Recalling an early memory of Draper passionately speaking up on behalf of people with disabilities in a hypothetical social work case study, Cheek said Draper was compassionate, empathetic and authentic.

“When I worked at the non-profit Peace at Home Family Shelter between my bachelor's and master's degrees,” Cheek said, “Caitlin volunteered countless hours at the shelter outside of her work with shelter clients. Her dedication to social work values and principles shines through her work.”

In addition to her private practice, Draper often returns to the UofA as an adjunct lecturer in the School of Social Work under Alishia Ferguson, the program’s director. 

“By running for office in a difficult race,” Ferguson said, “she is using her social work advocacy skills, modeling for our students how important it is to put your money where your mouth is. Win or lose, she will raise awareness for important issues that affect our clients and our profession.” 

Draper made the decision to start her campaign in March, after joining a training program from the national organization Emerge. The group recruits and trains female and non-binary Democrats as potential candidates for public office. 

“I’ve always been sort of engaged politically,” Draper said, “but what really got me thinking in this direction was some of the oppressive legislation in Congress and on the state level. I have a large LGBTQIA+ population in my practice, and seeing my clients suffer senselessly was infuriating to me. When your government tells you, ‘We don't want you here, you don’t belong,’ it affects people and there are real consequences.”

Draper said another reason she decided to enter politics was the state of reproductive policy since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022. Arkansas almost immediately began enacting stricter reproductive laws, defining life as beginning at fertilization. These definitions have called into question a host of other medical procedures separate from abortions.

“I have a condition called PCOS,” Draper said, “which among other things can cause infertility. I’ve started going through IVF (in vitro fertilization). I fear whether or not I will even be able to complete that process with some of the new proposed policies, especially in Arkansas.”

Draper said the transition into public life has been a major change, but not an unmanageable one. She said it can be scary being in the public eye, and she sometimes feels the need to put on a certain demeanor or dress a certain way.

“But I don’t think people want a politician,” Draper said. “I think people want an advocate that cares. So every time I feel scared, or get shy of the spotlight on me or on my family, I just remember what I’m doing and how important it is to me, and the fear dissipates.”

Arkansas’ third district recently shrunk as a result of new population estimates from the 2020 census. The district’s redistribution is indicative of a larger growth trend in Northwest Arkansas. 

Draper said the growth brings many opportunities to the district and has the potential to drive economic growth as well as promote tolerance and diversity in NWA. She also acknowledged concerns about the rapid development and its effect on longtime residents of the area.

“We are starting to have a huge housing crisis here,” Draper said. “I live in Ward 1 in Fayetteville, and our City Council member recently had to step down because she couldn’t find affordable housing in her own ward. These issues are happening to people all over the area.”

Draper said her message to UA students, new or first-time voters, is to try to avoid doubting their voices matter. 

“This generation will face so many issues,” Draper said. “Affordable housing, reproductive rights, the climate crisis. Young people have the opportunity to shape the world they will live in, and the best way to do so is to vote.”

Wyatt Rice, Fayetteville, Instagram @wyatterice

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