Dec 10, 2022 - Politics

Northwest Arkansas' 2022 power players

power players northwest arkansas

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Northwest Arkansas' "power players" are influential people who've made a difference in our community in 2022, those who made head-turning moves.

Why it matters: These influential individuals are helping shape Northwest Arkansas today and for generations to come.

How it works: The five people and groups we highlight are elected officials, community activists and key members of the business community.

  • We made this list using our own expertise, polling readers and through interviews with influential people.
  • The unscientific list is produced entirely by the Axios NWA editorial team and not influenced by advertising in any way.
  • People who made the power list were not notified of their selection until publication.

Of note: We recognize that countless people advance the economy, culture and livability here, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

  • We're simply highlighting a few.

1. Plaintiffs, Brandt et al v. Rutledge et al

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Four Arkansas transgender youths, their families and two doctors combined efforts with the American Civil Liberties Union in a complaint against the state's attorney general in 2021.

  • They're seeking to permanently overturn Arkansas' 2021 law banning gender-affirming medical care for minors.
  • The families were vocal through 2022, speaking with national media — "60 Minutes," the New York Times and NPR — elevating public discourse about the LGBTQ+ community, gender dysphoria and increased government intrusion into people's private lives.
  • Why it matters: Gender-affirming care is widely supported as appropriate and medically necessary by major health groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Biggest move of 2022: After facing legal arguments from the state to enforce the ban, the families and the ACLU successfully kept the law from taking effect this year, until a federal bench trial began in October.

What we're watching: The watershed trial concluded Dec. 1, but U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. hasn't provided a timeline for his decision.

  • Yes, and: How the Arkansas Legislature and the state's new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, react to the ruling.

2. Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Sarah Huckabee Sanders with her family on Nov. 8, 2022 after giving her gubernatorial acceptance speech.
Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Sarah Huckabee Sanders served as White House press secretary for two years during former President Trump's administration, was a senior adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton in 2014 and campaign manager for Sen. John Boozman in 2010. She also served as national political director on former Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential bid. Huckabee is her father.

Biggest move of 2022: Sanders won the gubernatorial election with nearly 63% of the votes cast, making her the first woman to lead the Natural State.

What we're watching: Everything. Sanders provided few details about how she intends to govern during her campaign.

  • Questions remain about how transparent her administration will be with the public and media.

3. Rafael Rios

man standing behind a bar with smile
Photo courtesy of Rafael Rios

Rafael Rios co-founded a food truck in 2012, and he's since added another truck, a restaurant in Bentonville and a downtown Rogers eatery. Many ingredients featured on the menu are from the family farm in Little Flock.

Biggest move of 2022: Being named a James Beard Award semifinalist as one of the best chefs in the South.

  • Yeyo's in Bentonville was included on the New York Times' 2022 America's Best Restaurants list, the only Arkansas establishment to make it.

What we're watching: More national attention to the NWA culinary scene thanks to Yeyo’s delicious dishes.

4. Charles Robinson

Photo: Courtesy of University of Arkansas

Charles Robinson served as interim chancellor since August 2021 and was recently named to the role permanently. He's worn many hats in his 23 years at the university, starting as a professor focusing on Southern history and race relations. He has since held roles such as vice chancellor for diversity and community and vice provost for diversity.

  • Robinson established the College Access Initiative, a readiness outreach program for underrepresented students, and he led the main capital campaign initiative for Advance Arkansas, a $10 million scholarship effort for first-generation, low-income Arkansans, according to the university.

Biggest move of 2022: Being named chancellor after a unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees in November. He will be the first Black person to serve in the role.

What we're watching: What he'll do now that he's secured the leadership spot.

5. The Young Waltons

A photo of Olivia, Tom, Kelly and Steuart Walton on stage.
From left, Olivia, Tom, Kelly and Steuart Walton in May. Photo courtesy Heartland Forward

Steuart and Tom are brothers and the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, who are using influence to enhance the quality of life in their backyard, in part through their Runway Group holding company.

The young Waltons are helping build NWA's sense of community by investing in green spaces, art and music, outdoor recreation, the culinary scene, attractive real estate development and advanced mobility.

  • Steuart sits on Walmart's board of directors.
  • Tom is on the board at the Walton Family Foundation, which makes grants to a variety of regional projects. The foundation is spearheading a market aimed at helping local farmers and food entrepreneurs.
  • Olivia Walton, who is married to Tom, chairs the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and is the executive board chair at sister arts center The Momentary.

Biggest move of 2022: Hosting the inaugural FORMAT Festival (For Music, Art, Technology) in Bentonville in September.

What we're watching: What Steuart and Tom plan to do with the Walmart campus. They announced this year that Blue Crane, a development company under the Runway Group umbrella, will buy the existing buildings and land as Walmart plans to move employees to a new, under-construction campus. They've not said what they intend to do with the property.

People on our radar

Illustration of stars with the words "People We're Watching."
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

We also have our eyes on those who could have a big 2023.

  • Carol Silva Moralez — The president and CEO of Upskill NWA, a program recently launched by Excellerate Foundation that gives financial support to low-income, nontraditional students pursuing careers in health care.
  • Hunter Yurachek — The person with the most control of Razorback athletics is arguably one of the state's power players. Under his leadership, Arkansas football and basketball programs have rebounded from less-than-ideal status. He'll be worth watching next year.

In memoriam

A composite photo of Cameron Smith and Mary Ann Greenwood
Photos: Courtesy of Cameron Smith & Associates and Greenwood Gearhart

We want to remember two power players who passed away this year.

  • Cameron Smith, founder of Cameron Smith & Associates recruiting firm, and Mary Ann Greenwood, founder of financial advisory firm Greenwood Gearhart, invested time and vast intellectual capital to shape Northwest Arkansas.
  • They are missed.

Go deeper: See all 200 of Axios Local's Power Players in 2022


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