Navajo activist to face off against incumbent in Salt Lake City’s District 2 race

Andrew Johnston and Moroni Benally

Sitting Salt Lake City Councilman Andrew Johnston will run for a second term against Moroni Benally, a gay activist who ran unsuccessfully for president of the Navajo Nation in 2014 and now hopes to serve Salt Lake City’s diverse District 2.

Johnston, 44, is a social worker with Volunteers for America and the former chairman of the Poplar Grove Community Council who points to his experience serving the council as a boon for residents in the district moving forward.

If elected to a second term, he says he would focus on diversity in housing, increased bus service to his area and “rebranding” perceptions of the west side.

“I think one of the things we run into that’s not well known is that we’re losing kids,” he said of the most pressing issues facing his district. “We have about half the kids in the city on the west side and if those families move and don’t come back, we’ll have some real problems. So making sure that my neighborhood is really family friendly and people are able to raise their kids over there is important to me.”

One of his proudest accomplishments on the council, he said, was its passage of the Funding Our Future initiative, a package to fund street maintenance, affordable housing, transit and public safety through a 0.5 percent increase to the city’s portion of sales tax and an $87 million road reconstruction bond voters passed last November.

That extra money, he said, has been a “game changer” for the city’s current budget.

Benally, 40, grew up on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona and now lives in Poplar Grove. He is the co-director of the Utah League of Native American Voters and works as the coordinator for public policy and advocacy at Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit tribal coalition that addresses domestic violence and sexual assault.

Those are issues he’d like to continue working on as a city councilman, he said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“A recent report that came out of Seattle, I think it was last year, had named Salt Lake City among some of the cities with the highest rates of murdered, missing indigenous women, girls and children,” Benally said. “And so for me that would probably be one of the top priorities is working with law enforcement, with prosecutors, city attorneys and a multitude of different organizations to really get a grasp of the scope of this crisis.”

He said he’d also want to focus on affordable housing and the way law enforcement officials deal with minority populations, as well as work at the state level to increase wages for working-class people.

While Benally conceded that the indigenous population in Salt Lake City is small, he said he’d bring a voice to all people of color on the west side, who he noted have been underrepresented in the past.

“I’m a part of that community of color,” he said. “I’m a native person who has experienced the mostly problematic history that people of color have with law enforcement in the district. I have direct experience with those things.”

While Johnston said he thinks it may be time for someone else to take the reins following his second term, if elected, he said he feels he still has a lot to offer his neighbors in District 2.

“I didn’t really have sort of a game plan long term to be on the City Council but I’ve been so impressed in the last few years with the city itself and a lot of the initiatives we’re taking on and I’m very impressed with my neighbors, frankly,” he said. “One of the things when you run for office is you meet a lot of people you wouldn’t have known otherwise and I’m just so impressed by their resilience, by their passion.”