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Issue #77: Navajo Voters hope to hold onto power in San Juan County, UT
A county bursting with racial tension
Anyone who has been following my political coverage for the last six years knows I am obsessed with San Juan County, Utah. Located in the Southeastern corner of the state, San Juan overlaps with part of the Navajo Nation Reservation, resulting in a population that is around 50% Native American; with a vast majority of being Navajo.
Overall, San Juan is low in population, around 15,000 people, and is very rural. The county is made up of the Navajo Nation in its southern end, while the white residents, heavily concentrated in Blanding and Monticello, reside in the center and north of the county. Many portions of the county are empty and protected land. Much of the county is heavily segregated and racially polarized; with Blanding being the most diverse city at 30% Native and 66% white.
That racial polarization transfers to its political polarization. The Navajo voters in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona are heavily Democratic. The Navajo Nation as a whole gave Joe Biden 78% of its vote.
In 2020, San Juan County voted for Trump by 6 points. That result was heavily polarized between the white north and the Navajo South. Precinct closeness heavily correlated with demographics. Precinct 8 in the Navajo Nation has a sizeable white minority, while the western Blanding precincts have higher Native populations. Race and partisan vote heavily correlate in many San Juan races.
Turnout dynamics, namely that Navajo voters turn out lower than white voters, keep the county perpetually leaning Republican; with margins often depending on Navajo turnout.
Redistricting and Discrimination
San Juan has a long history of racial tension and discrimination. For decades, there has been a perpetual conflict between the Navajo voters and the white elected leaders. Thanks to stronger white turnout, the county has been run by white elected officials until very recently. Up until 1986, the three county commissioners were elected countywide. A Justice Department lawsuit led to the created of 3 single-member district. The lines, however, were drawn to pack the Native population into District 3, leaving Districts 1 and 2 heavily white.
In 2017, I did a deep dive into San Juan County’s redistricting and its history of racial discrimination. Over the decades, the Native population has been forced to sue the county for basic services. These include….
Ensure schools were built on the reservation
Ensure utilities and power were supplied to the reservation
Offer bilingual education options
Provide school bus routes on the reservation
Providing an ambulance housed on the reservation (the Navajo Nation finally provided it)
The county has long argued these are Tribal or Federal matters, essentially claiming the reservation isn’t really part of the county at all. You certainty get that impression from some of the officials - they’d rather not deal with the area.
This lack of consideration for the Native population was seen in 2014 when the county moved to all-mail voting. On paper this sounds good, but Navajo is largely an oral language, and many older Navajo residents don’t know English well. During elections, Navajo interpreters have been at polling sites. Without this setup, turnout in parts of the reservation cratered in that midterm. A lawsuit resulted in the county bringing back polling sites to the reservation.
Major changes began around 2016, when a federal judge struck down the commission districts for the county. Not only were the lines packing voters, they had NOT been updated since the 1980s. After a long saga of the county trying to redraw its borders (read my deep dive for the details), a special master was brought in to draw new lines. These were the result.
The district lines evened out population, followed geographic dividing lines, and set up a dynamic where District 2 was the swing seat. Despite District 2 being 60%+ Native, the turnout dynamic meant the district could elect a white or Navajo candidate.
The 2018 midterm was the first election held under the new map. In the race, Navajo Democrat candidate Willie Grayeyes pulled off a victory over white Republican Kelly Laws. Note this result is actually a difference of under 200 votes. The vote was extremely racially polarized.
The results of this meant Navajo commissioners would make up the majority of the county commission for the first time in modern history.
That election itself was not without controversy. Before Grayeyes’ election, he was temporarily tossed from the ballot when it was claimed he did not live in the district. This stemmed from him using an Arizona PO box for his mail, something not uncommon for western reservation residents, as mail service does not go into the area. The Republican Clerk of Court threw him off the ballot, but a judge restored him to the ballot and admonished the clerk.
After the election, tensions rose in the county. The white residents and leaders were angered by the outcome and claimed the commission lines discrimination against white Republicans. I cannot stress enough how petty these people come off. It is eerily similar to how southern whites reacted to black voters winning control of a county. White residents expressed fury at the new commission voting on a resolution to say it supported the Bears Ears Monument designation from Obama. Just months into 2019, the County Administrator resigned after pushing back on the Navajo majority’s requests. Everything screamed of trying to short-circuit the effects of the Navajo majority on the commission.
In 2019, white residents in Blanding led the petition effort for a ballot measure that hoped to restructure the county government. The goal was clear, change the commission structure to aid in recreating a white majority. The measure saw massive efforts by the Navajo to increase their turnout for the special election. I covered the 2019 campaign in this article. The results were a stunning win for the Navajo, with YES failing by 5%.
The results were heavily racially polarized, and as I discuss in my article, were thanks to strong turnout among the Navajo. It marked the first county-wide election where White and Navajo voters had near-identical turnout.
The referendum’s failure led to a small reprieve in tensions, but as 2022 geared up, plenty emerged again.
The 2022 Redistricting and County Attorney Saga
After the 2020 elections, which didn’t feature any heated white v Navajo county contests, political intrigue moved to the redistricting process. I covered that process in this article. While plenty of white residents expressed their frustration with the loss of their gerrymander, the two Navajo commissioners were able to move forward with getting redistricting expert Bill Cooper, who’d drawn the 2018 court-ordered map, to draft plans. After months of debate and meetings, the commission was able to vote 2-1 to advance “Plan B” - which largely maintains the status quo.
The plan notably preserves the political/racial dynamic of the commission, with District 1 being heavily white/Republican, District 3 being heavily Native/Democrat, and District 2 being a tossup, with a Native edge if turnout is strong. Discussions of gerrymandering the lines to cement District 2 as even more Native-heavy were ignored, as were efforts to go back to packing Natives in one district.
As redistricting wrapped up, tensions with County Attorney Kendall Laws reached a boiling point. County Attorney is an elected position in San Juan, and Laws, the son of failed County 2 candidate Kelly Laws, clashed with the Navajo commissioners non-stop. Laws had a clear conflict of interest, and was part of the effort to get Grayeyes tossed from the ballot in 2018. It is clear from reporters on the ground that the white countywide officials (from Attorney, to Sheriff, to Clerk) aimed to short-circuit a Navajo majority on the commission. Laws had a bitter relationship with the post-2018 commission, so much so he was called out by a commission resolution for refusing to perform tasks asked of commissioners.
Due to this breakdown in relations, the majority on the commission relied on outside counsel, showing a complete lack of trust (and who can blame them) in the countywide officials. In 2022, after complaining about the redistricting process, Laws opted to resign as county attorney. He is now spending the closing weeks of the campaign attacking the commissioners and lobbing accusations of ethics complains (which I’m not inclined to believe considering his motive).
Things were so tense that in the spring resolution (pages 15-20 of this pdf) that the San Juan Commission passed to appoint a new County Attorney, the commissioners laid out the long history of county discrimination against the Navajo and then took direct aim at Laws for his roles in redistricting court battles and removing Grayeyes from the ballot. Some highlights below.
All I have to say is - SAVAGE AS FUCK!
The 2022 Elections
With drama continuing in San Juan, the 2022 elections feature several critical contests. Four partisan county races are being held, all featuring Navajo Democrats vs White Republicans.
County 2: Willie Grayeyes (D - Inc) vs Silvia Stubbs (R - Challenger)
County 3: Kenneth Maryboy (D - Inc) vs Jamie Harvey (R - Challenger)
County Clerk: Garrett Thomas Holly (D - Challenger) vs Lyman Duncan (R - Inc)
County Sheriff (open): Al James Whitehorse (D) vs Lehi Lacy (R)
The race for County Attorney is unopposed, with Brittney Ivins, who was appointed to replace Laws months ago, the only candidate.
County 3 is the only safe race, while County 2 and the Clerk and Sheriff races are tossups. This marks a notable increase in Navajo candidates running for county-wide offices. I speculated that the successful defeat of the 2019 Proposition could result in Navajo Nation voters realizing they can flex their political might. This is the result.
On top of this, the county is covered by State House District 69, which features a race between Davina Smith, a member of the Navajo, vs Rep. Phil Lyman; who has been hostile to Navajo interests through his political career. Lyman, who used to serve on the San Juan Commission, actually proposed splitting up the county as racial tensions rose. Smith has generated a great deal of excitement for her race, outraising Lyman and making history as the first female Navajo candidate for Utah legislature. Unfortunately for Smith, the district, which covers San Juan and several surrounding counties, is deep-red; backing Trump by over 20 points. Realistically Lyman will win, but Smith could win in San Juan, and her presence will help boost Navajo turnout, which will effect the county races.
Next week, we will mark the latest chapter in San Juan’s political struggles. We will see how the latest chapter unfolds.