Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez urges San Juan County voters to defeat Proposition 10

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez speaks to reporters in Window Rock, Ariz., the Navajo Nation capital, about the upcoming special election in San Juan County, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

Window Rock, Ariz. • Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on Tuesday urged San Juan County, Utah, voters to reject Proposition 10 in next week’s special election.

Nez spoke at a press conference, along with other Navajo officials and Kenneth Maryboy, a member of the first majority-Native American San Juan County Commission.

If it passes on Nov. 5, the proposition would begin the process of changing San Juan County’s form of government. It would authorize the creation of a study committee that could recommend expanding the size of the three-member County Commission, which has two Navajo members.

“San Juan County, Utah, has a long history of undermining voters, particularly Navajo voters,” Nez said in a written statement, referring in part to a lawsuit brought against the county by the Navajo Nation in 2012. The suit led to a federal court finding that the county had racially gerrymandered its voting districts.

Last year, following a court-ordered redistricting, “members of the Navajo Nation were elected to fill two of three commissioner positions for the first time in San Juan County’s history,” Nez said. “Proposition 10 aims to undermine the outcome of that election and the voices of voters.”

Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, who started the petition drive that put Proposition 10 on the ballot and triggered a special election, has argued that the ballot question has nothing to do with the Commission’s Native American majority, but Nez said the special election has been “divisive.”

He placed the current proposition in a historical context, comparing the San Juan County election to attempts in Arizona to divide Apache and Navajo counties after Navajo officials won controlling majorities in elections. (A similar proposal, making it easier for counties to split, was supported in the Utah Legislature by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. The measure did not pass.)

“We fought hard for our representation,” Nez said. “All we want to have is equal and fair representation. If a non-Navajo were to come in and campaign hard and get the trust of the Navajo people in that county, they could get elected.”

Nez’s prepared remarks also weighed in on potential electioneering by San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson. As was first reported in The Salt Lake Tribune last week, Nielson acknowledged that he distributed a letter at early voting locations that Joe B. Lyman wrote supporting Proposition 10. The move was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

“There has been recent reports of electioneering taking place to influence the outcome of the election — this needs to stop and offenders must be held accountable,” Nez said.

Nez referred to a meeting he had last month with Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, whose district includes San Juan County, along with other elected leaders. Nez said officials discussed how to fix roads on the Navajo Nation in Utah and called it an example of positive cooperation.

“We need to come together,” Nez said, “to unify not just the Navajo people, but unify with the brothers and sisters that are not Navajo. And to move forward on the commonalities, you know, the things that we need to do to improve our communities.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, left, speaks to the press in Window Rock, Ariz., with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, middle, and former President Peterson Zah, right, about the upcoming special election in San Juan County, Utah. Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah spoke on Tuesday about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act as a turning point for Navajo voters.

Zah gave the example of Tom Shirley who became the first Native American to serve on the Apache County Board of Supervisors in the 1970s. Shirley’s eligibility was challenged in a case that went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1973, Zah said, adding, “You would think all these years later that people would learn from that, but look what’s happening in San Juan County.”

Zah went on to recount the testimony he gave on behalf of San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, who had his Utah residency challenged by his Republican opponent in January in a case that’s currently before the Utah Supreme Court.

Maryboy spoke on Tuesday about the opposition he has faced as a county commissioner, and highlighted the major accomplishments of the last year, including his vote with Grayeyes to hold occasional commission meetings on the Navajo Nation and the resolutions they passed in support of the Bears Ears National Monument.

He noted that over the last five years the county has spent close to $5 million on litigation, including $3.7 million on voting rights cases. “What scares me is that... the county has paid tons and tons of money to attorneys from all over the United States."

“It’s going to boil back down to that again,” he added, alluding to the fact that the county could be sued again if a new form of government is found to violate voting rights legislation.

Maryboy thanked Nez and Zah for rallying voters against Proposition 10. “For you ... to say that you’re going to lend a hand for my people back home that can’t speak for themselves, that can’t stand up for themselves, thank you so much,” he said.

Maryboy is scheduled to speak at a rally at the Mexican Water Chapter House on Sunday, along with Zah, Grayeyes, and Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Executive Director Leonard Gorman. Nez’s opponent in the last presidential election, former President Joe Shirley Jr., is also recording radio ads opposing Proposition 10.

“We’re going to try to encourage as many Navajo people as possible to come and support our two leaders,” Zah said. “We’ve got to support each other.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.