‘They’re trying to get me off the candidacy’: San Juan County is investigating one of the Navajo Democrats running in a special election

(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.

He says he’s lived here for at least 50 years. The county party chairman says he’s been registered to vote here for at least 34. The state elections director says he’s cast a ballot here for at least 26.

Still, Republican-controlled San Juan County is accusing Democrat and Navajo Willie Grayeyes of not being a Utah resident — and therefore not qualified to run for the open commission seat for which he won the nomination last month.

“I think there are some motivations there,” Grayeyes responded Thursday. “They’re trying to get me off the candidacy.”

The election this November will be the first since a federal judge redrew the county’s voting districts. The new boundaries 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 Americans Indians.

But it has riled Republicans, who for three decades have been the dominant political party in this southeastern corner of the state and for the first time are looking at losing their hold over it.

The investigation of Grayeyes is the latest in what has already been a tense process, underscored by race, to vacate the seats and conduct a special election, as ordered by Judge Robert Shelby.

In a statement released Thursday, the current commissioners said the clerk’s office looked into the Democratic candidate’s residency after receiving a citizen complaint that alleged he lived in Arizona and not San Juan County. There is information, they said, “that would support this.”

The county is now requesting that Grayeyes “prove his eligibility to be a candidate for office.” And it’s threatening criminal charges if he can’t.

State Elections Director Justin Lee confirmed, though, that Grayeyes has participated in every general election there since 1992, excepting the one in 1996. The county’s Democratic Chairman James Adakai added that Grayeyes registered to vote in 1984 and has run for office before without this complaint being brought up.

Adakai, also the president of the Oljato chapter of the Navajo Nation in Utah, believes the allegations are racially driven.

“The fact that his residency has been put into question now and never before I think it proves that this is a politically motivated, racist attack,” he said. “I think the Republicans in the county have dominated the political landscape for decades. I don’t think they like what’s going on now. But this is an opportunity, based on the federal court ruling, for the Native American population to participate in the democratic process.”

Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, echoed that thought. “This is politically motivated if not racially motivated, in my opinion,” he said.

Grayeyes has been a member of the Utah Navajo Commission for years, which requires state residency. He has also been a vocal supporter of the original Bears Ears National Monument designation — which the county strongly opposed — and sits on the board for Utah Diné Bikéyah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shakes hands with Willie Grayeyes of Utah Dine Bikeyah following a short hike to Butler Wash Indian Ruins by the secretary and members of the Utah delegation during a tour of the Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.

He has a post office box in Arizona, which services much of the Navajo Reservation where he lives. That, he suggests, might be the source of the complaint. “They know well that this is the situation, but they still question,” Grayeyes said.

Shortly after the commission sent out its statement Thursday, which also alleged that Grayeyes has ignored multiple requests to “bring information” confirming his residency, a law firm now representing the candidate emailed Google screenshots to the clerk pinpointing the candidate’s house in the Navajo Mountain community on the reservation, falling within Utah’s borders.

“I have resided at this home for at least 20 years and intend to remain there permanently and indefinitely,” reads an attached declaration from Grayeyes.

His attorney adds: “If you continue to doubt the validity of Mr. Grayeyes’ residence, we request that you personally travel to Navajo Mountain to meet with Mr. Grayeyes at his home as part of your determination of his residence status.”

It also indicates that the citizen complaint was filed by Wendy Black, of Blanding, on March 28, which she confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune. She ran in the GOP Convention this month for the commission seat in District 2, the same one Grayeyes is vying for, and lost. The Republican nomination went to Kelly Laws instead.

Black said Thursday that she was on a radio show with Grayeyes last year when he said during the broadcast that he lived in Tuba City, Ariz. She could not remember the date it aired, but she drove out to Navajo Mountain this year to try to find Grayeyes’ Utah home. “There were no houses where he said he lived,” she said.

During the meeting of Republican delegates two weeks ago, Black suggested that Grayeyes lived a long way from the county’s seat in the majority-white town of Monticello. “He’s going to be a drain on the system,” she said at the time. “He’s going to want money and a car.”

Others angered by the redrawn voter districts suggested that Navajo commissioners wouldn’t show up for meetings, wouldn’t allocate funding to white towns, wouldn’t understand how to govern the county. “I feel like we’ve been disenfranchised,” declared one man.

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-Indians held majorities on the commission and nonpartisan school board — the two most powerful government bodies there.

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 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)

Already, the 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.

That’s the race Grayeyes is in. It’s also the seat currently held by Phil Lyman, who decided to run for the Utah House after his spot on the commission was put in doubt by the new boundaries. He could not be reached by phone Thursday night.

The other Republican commissioner, Bruce Adams, declined to comment while the case is under investigation, noting only that “the clerk is handling it.” The clerk, John David Nielson, also refused to say anything.

Cragun, the state Democratic Party director, said he wasn’t sure why the statement was sent out by the commission in place of the clerk. “I think this is an inappropriate thing for the county commission to be interfering in the election and weighing in on this,” he said.

Grayeyes’ lawyers argue that the commission is “trying to find the means, once again, of denying Indian voters in the county the ability to elect candidates of their choice through a spurious challenge to Mr. Grayeyes’ residence.”

If he is determined not to be a state resident, the local party would have until the end of August to select a new candidate to run. The state elections office said a county candidate is required to be a citizen and a resident of the district for at least one year as of the date of the election.

— Tribune government editor Dan Harrie contributed to this story.