‘We’ve been disenfranchised’: Republicans in San Juan County say redrawn voter districts unfairly favor Navajos

Monticello • In this rural redrock town where buttes form the boundaries and windmills stand like a picket fence on the horizon, the largely Republican – and primarily white – residents are angry and resentful and frustrated.

For more than three decades, they’ve been the dominant political party in this remote desert corner of Utah. For the first time, they’re likely to be overthrown.

“I feel like we’ve been disenfranchised,” said Robert Turk, 57.

It was the shared sentiment Thursday at the first GOP convention in San Juan County since a federal judge redrew the boundaries to give Navajos, who tend to affiliate as Democrats, a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board seats. The decision was meant to reverse the historic political domination by whites over American Indians.

But it has roiled Monticello and Blanding, the two larger towns here that each has more than 75 percent Anglo populations, where American flags wave from almost every porch, pickup trucks sit in most driveways and pretty much anyone who’s not a tourist wears cowboy boots. The districts, they said, are now unfairly based on race and party.

And federal Judge Robert Shelby, they said, is to blame.

“You mean King Shelby?” asked longtime Blanding resident Al Clarke. “The way these districts came about is just totalitarian.”

“He’s skewed everything in favor of the Democrats,” added Zeb Dalton, 39, still wearing his tan cowboy hat hours after he’d finished work for the day at his cattle ranch.

“He stabbed the citizens of San Juan County in the heart the best he could,” suggested Kelly Laws, who won the GOP nomination to run for the commission seat in District 2.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County delegates vote for commission candidates during their convention in Monticello on Thursday, April 5, 2018.

The 60 Republican delegates for the county met in the cafeteria of Monticello High School – which sits inside the only remaining guaranteed Republican stronghold and the only new commission district with less than 50 percent Navajo voters. The convention was 50 miles away from the reservation, about as far as you can get in the sprawling southeastern Utah county, and in a city named for Thomas Jefferson’s slave-run plantation in Virginia.

It was underscored, too, by some racial tension among residents concerned that American Indians living on the Navajo Nation don’t pay property taxes. Lynn Laws, 69, of Blanding, worries about having “two nontaxpaying commissioners telling us how to use our tax money.”

Others suggested Navajo commissioners wouldn’t show up for meetings, wouldn’t allocate funding to white towns, wouldn’t understand how to govern the county.

“We hear people saying that Native Americans are not capable, which is not true,” responded James Adakai, chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party and president of the Oljato chapter of the Navajo Nation in Utah.

For too long, he said, tribal issues have been ignored by the majority-GOP commission. Roads on the reservation are in desperate need of repair and school bus routes can take up to two hours one way for native students.

The county, overall, is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to the most recent census data. In January 2012, the Navajo Nation filed suit armed with those population numbers, alleging that San Juan violated the Voting Rights Act by ensuring that non-Indian voters held majorities on the commission and nonpartisan school board — the two most powerful government bodies here.

Judge Shelby ordered the seats be redrawn. He ultimately approved plans in December 2017 — designed by a University of California, Irvine, professor — where District 1 has an American Indian population of 11.1 percent, District 2 at 65.6 percent and District 3 at 79.9 percent. Before, just one had a Navajo majority.

The proposed new voting district boundaries could help elect a majority of Navajos to the county commission for the first time. (U.S. District Court for Utah)

He also required that all seats be vacated and a special election be held in November. Nearly every Democrat running now is American Indian. No Republican candidate is.

“The good old boys have always been looking down on the Native Americans,” said Kenneth Maryboy, a Navajo who has previously served on the commission. He is running for District 3 this year against incumbent Rebecca Benally, who, though a Democrat and Navajo, has typically aligned with President Donald Trump and the two Republican commissioners. “Now things are changing, and they don’t feel good about it.”

Certainly, the court ruling has set off new tensions between the mostly liberal tribal members and the staunchly conservative ranchers. But it has also picked at the scab left from what local Anglos decry as the Obama administration’s “midnight” designation of Bears Ears National Monument in the county (which was later downsized by Trump).

GOP candidates mentioned “the oppression of federal overreach” in their speeches, and convention attendees whispered about “the lands fight.” They talked about regulations and “the loss of our freedom.” The redrawn districts put in place by a U.S. District Court judge hundreds of miles away are just more of the same unwanted intervention.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman speaks about running for the Utah House seat left open by Rep. Mike Noel's retirement on Thursday, April 5, 2018.

“The federal government is the biggest threat we face in San Juan County,” said Phil Lyman. The current commissioner, a Republican, is running for the Utah House seat left open by Rep. Mike Noel’s retirement. His position with the county government was put in doubt with the new districts. And he has his own beef with the judge.

Shelby presided over the 2015 trial in which Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor charges stemming from a protest ride up Recapture Canyon, which is federal land where motorized vehicles are prohibited.

“Judge Shelby is out of touch,” he alleged, “and he’s got an ax to grind in San Juan County.”

Lyman and others suggested that all of the County Commission seats be elected at large so the 16,895 residents could vote without being confined by arbitrary boundaries. That’s how it was done before a 1984 federal court consent decree — the outcome of an earlier court battle by Navajos to gain representation on the panel.

Already, Shelby’s newly drawn districts have affected which candidates entered the race.

In the predominantly white District 1, for instance, only conservatives are running. And in the mostly Navajo District 3, only liberal candidates. That means just District 2 will have an election between a Republican and a Democrat.

Vint DeGraw, chairman of the San Juan County GOP, says the slim chance the party could win there is if American Indians don’t come out to vote on Election Day. Otherwise, he considers it a nearly certain loss spurred by “fouled up” redistricting, a sure setup to lose power.

Most of the delegates thought that, too. They walked out of the Republican convention under the high school’s Buckaroos mascot banner looking dejected and disappointed. Even the American flag pennants and bows they had taped to the walls had slumped to the floor by the end of the two-hour meeting.