Rolly: Southern Utah county’s targeting of Navajo candidate revives shades of Jim Crow

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Rolly.

My last column tied a malicious felony prosecution of a conservation advocate and her husband to an anti-environmentalist culture in San Juan County.

Another case currently being pushed by county officials suggests a Jim Crow atmosphere in rural southeastern Utah as well.

The County Commission has accused commission candidate Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and a Navajo, of illegally filing to run for office because he is a resident of Arizona, even though he has been registered to vote in San Juan Country for 34 years, has cast votes there the past 26 years and is a member of the Navajo Utah Commission, which requires state residency.

He also has pursued office in San Juan County before without the question of residency ever being brought up.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Navajo DineŽ BikŽeyah member Willie Grayeyes speaks in opposition to HB136, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, at left, which muzzles city and local officials from speaking out on public-lands protections during the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

But this year is different. Because federal Judge Robert Shelby ruled the county’s commission and school board voting districts were illegally drawn to subordinate the majority American Indian population, the districts have been redrawn to favor the Navajos’ chances of winning two of the three commission seats.

Since that ruling, the white populations of Blanding and Monticello have been going apoplectic. At the recent San Juan County Republican Convention, locals railed against Shelby’s decision, alleging the Navajos won’t be able to run the county effectively and will unfairly divert resources to majority-Navajo areas.

The irony is that, for years, most of those resources have gone to the white-dominated towns. In many areas, meanwhile, Navajos still have inadequate water, roads and electricity.

The complaints by the white officeholders and Republican Party officials that the Navajos should not run the county ring similar to the rantings of Southern bigots — before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — that African-Americans were not capable of having a political say in their communities and that whites needed to take care of them.

When I was in New Orleans several years ago, some white tour guides of the old mansions and historic facilities there told our group that Louisiana slaves were happier than other Southern slaves because Pelican State owners treated them so much better.

I posed that question to the African-American driver of a bus tour I took. His response: “What?!”

He stopped the bus to explain over his microphone to the passengers that if they had been told Louisiana’s slaves didn’t suffer the same humiliations of their Southern brothers and sisters, then they had been sadly misinformed.

That lesson came to mind a few months ago when I was listening to the Saturday morning “Red Meat Radio” program run by Utah Republicans and usually promoting a GOP spin on issues.

One of the guests was San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who was talking about redistricting in the county and the controversy surrounding Bears Ears National Monument, opposed by most of the county officials but favored by most American Indians in the area.

Lyman said the county’s whites and Navajos get along just fine. There is no contention between the populations. He blamed that perception on the liberal media.

Then Shelby’s ruling came down, giving a political edge, at last, to the majority Indians.

County commissioners, including Lyman, howled that the newly constituted districts would lead to discrimination against the county’s whites.

So much for everyone getting along so well and being so happy. That’s only the case when the whites control everything and the Navajos are left wanting.