Navajo Democrat files suit against San Juan County after he was kicked off the special election ballot

(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.

Officials of Republican-controlled San Juan County said they had “clear and convincing evidence” to boot a Democratic Navajo candidate from the November ballot. (He says they didn’t.)

They said he’s not a Utah resident and isn’t qualified to run for the open commission seat for which he won the nomination. (He says he is.)

They said the determination had nothing to do with race. (He says it does.)

Now, Willie Grayeyes intends to present his side with a lawsuit filed Wednesday challenging the rural southeastern Utah county’s decision to end his campaign, requesting it reinstate his candidacy and accusing it of launching a racially and politically motivated attack.

“San Juan County has long denied the right of Native Americans to fully participate in the election process,” said Grayeyes’ attorney, Steven Boos.

It’s an extraordinary battle playing out as San Juan sorts through how to hold an election after its political system was turned upside down by a federal court’s intervention. Judge Robert Shelby ordered in December that the county vacate all commission and school board seats this year and hold a special election under new voting boundaries, meant to reverse the historic political domination there by whites over American Indians (who make up at least 50 percent of the population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data).

The redrawn districts 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. Grayeyes, who won his party’s nomination for the commission race in March, was running in District 2 — which previously had an Anglo majority of voters and now, for the first time in three decades, has a Native American majority.

It’s also the only commission race that will have a contest between a Democrat and a Republican.

In the predominantly white District 1, only conservatives are running. And in the mostly Navajo District 3, only liberal candidates. But that ideological — and largely racial — shakeup from the new boundaries has riled Republicans, who have always been the dominant political party in this desert corner of the state and are now looking at losing their hold over it, particularly if Grayeyes wins.

“Grayeyes’ candidacy for county commissioner in District 2 therefore reflects a judicially-endorsed reality that members of the Navajo Nation for the first time since statehood will be able to achieve actual representation of Native American interests,” the lawsuit reads.

Neither Grayeyes nor the county’s spokeswoman could be reached for comment Wednesday.

The candidate came under the microscope in March after a white resident in Blanding, who lost her bid for the same seat at the county’s GOP convention, filed a complaint claiming that Grayeyes lives in Arizona. He then submitted to the county a satellite image of his house in the Navajo Mountain community on the Navajo Nation reservation within Utah’s borders, a record of his longtime voter registration, a copy of his 1946 birth certificate and a document showing his cattle ranching operations in the region.

The state elections director, too, confirmed he’d cast ballots dating back at least 26 years. The county Democratic Party chairman vouched for his residency of at least 34 years.

San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson wrote in a letter to Grayeyes dated May 4 that it was not enough. A sheriff’s deputy, he said, visited the property Grayeyes listed on his candidacy form. No one answered the door, and the dirt driveway did not appear to have “recent tire tracks” or footprints. Neighbors in the largely unpopulated and spread-out community, too, reported not knowing Grayeyes or suggested that he often stays in Tuba City, Ariz.

“I find that this evidence sufficiently rebuts the presumption of residency arising from your previous voter status,” Nielson concluded (though he acknowledged when the deputy visited Grayeyes’ supposed residence in Arizona, no one was there either). The clerk then booted the candidate from the ballot and voided his voter registration.

Grayeyes has alleged that the county is just “trying to get me off the candidacy.” His lawyers have called the county’s decision discriminatory and its proof flimsy. Most of the neighbors in the deputy’s report are anonymous, they say. The anecdotes are circumstantial, they say. And an employee of the sheriff’s office should never have been sent out to investigate the civil matter, they say.

San Juan’s clerk and attorney, as well as the sheriff’s deputy and the woman who filed the original complainant against the candidate, are all named as defendants. They are also, as the attorneys note, all white Republican residents.

“All are identified with the historically-entrenched political forces in San Juan County, which have fought redistricting in federal court and continue to resist implementation of Judge Shelby’s order, including the candidacy of Grayeyes as a spokesperson for and prominent racial and ethnic symbol of that order,” the lawsuit reads.

It accuses Kendall Laws, too, of using his political position as the county’s attorney to influence the election through this action. His father, Kelly Laws, is Grayeyes’ Republican opponent in the race. Laws has recused himself from the case and turned the criminal investigation of the candidate over to Davis County.

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. His lawyers suggest disqualifying him from the ballot was retribution for that activism. Alliance for a Better Utah doubled down on the argument Wednesday.

“It is no secret that Mr. Grayeyes is an outspoken advocate for many issues impacting his community in San Juan County, and these attempts to keep him from running for office by those who stand to lose politically is a clear abuse of power,” said the organization’s founder, Josh Kanter.

The candidate was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2012. His residency was also challenged then, but the complaint was overruled by then-San Juan County Clerk Norman Johnson. Grayeyes has a post office box in Arizona, which services much of the Navajo Reservation where he lives. That, he has suggested, might be the source of the complaint. But he said he’s lived at his current home for 20 years and intends to “remain there permanently and indefinitely.”

The state requires a candidate to live full-time in the district for at least one year as of the date of the election. If Grayeyes is determined not to be a state resident after a court challenge, the local party would have until the end of August to select a new candidate to run.