Businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Richard Martin has spent three years trying to persuade state lawmakers to replace the Utah flag, estimating he’s shelled out $20,000 to create and promote a fresh design.
His proposed flag — a graphic design that features a golden beehive and the colors of the state’s redrock landscape and snowcapped mountains — makes him smile when he sees it floating on the breeze, he says. And he believes the design would have the same effect on other people.
“In its own way, it’ll make people feel better,” said Martin, chairman of Organization for a New Utah Flag. “Immediately when you see it, you say, ‘That’s a good-looking flag.’”
It seemed that he was on the verge of a win this year, with a bill moving through the Legislature that would designate his design as a commemorative flag for the 125th anniversary of Utah’s statehood. But with just days to go in the legislative session, Democratic state lawmakers are saying they’ve been disturbed to discover that a few social media accounts associated with the controversial DezNat hashtag have embraced one of Martin’s flag designs.
The online community that has formed around the hashtag, which acts as a rallying point for self-appointed warriors defending the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is by no means homogenous or organized. However, it has become known for its harsh rhetoric that is, at times, racist, sexist and homophobic.
Rep. Elizabeth Weight said she alerted her Democratic colleagues a few days ago that DezNat accounts were using the flag.
“They said, ‘No, no, no, we cannot have a commemorative flag that reflects the extremist, racist views of this organization,’” Weight, D-West Valley City, said.
Martin says he had no idea that his flag was appearing on these DezNat accounts and has little control over whether other people appropriate the design. The version that has shown up online is an older design, although it’s largely the same as the one that the Utah Legislature is considering for the state’s commemorative flag.
Several users have even modified the flag for their own purposes by adding the word “DezNat” in white text at the sides of the banner’s central beehive.
“They’ve grabbed an image and used it, and I don’t know how much we can say, ‘Hey guys, don’t use that,’” Martin said. “You don’t really want to be associated with that. ... There’s always people that take things to extremes, and what can you do about it? You just don’t want them to use your symbols.”
Martin’s son, Jonathan, who designed the proposed commemorative flag, said the Organization for a New Utah Flag hasn’t given any outside groups permission to use the design.
His organization contacted one of the DezNat social media accounts Tuesday and asked them to remove the flag design. The Facebook page’s owner agreed to take down the flag and changed his or her profile photo to the Tribune’s logo flipped backwards — turning a “t” into a “d” for DezNat.
But Rep. Stephen Handy, the House sponsor of the flag bill, said he’s thinking of stripping the commemorative flag sections out of his proposal so that the legislation doesn’t get bogged down in political disputes during the waning days of the session. The rest of the bill, SB48, calls for the creation of a task force to explore designating a new Utah state flag.
Handy said he likes Martin’s design, but he has had his own doubts about whether it makes sense to adopt it as a commemorative flag — especially since the state’s 125th anniversary year would be halfway over by the time that designation happened.
He was aware that House Democrats had reservations about the flag but said Tuesday that he didn’t specifically know about the DezNat issue. However, if the design is showing up on these accounts and “we say in statute that it’s a commemorative flag, I think it might be a problem,” the Layton Republican said.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the Senate sponsor for SB48, didn’t respond to an interview request.
The legislation has passed the Senate by a wide margin and earned unanimous approval from a House committee last week. It’s now up for consideration by the full House.
Weight said she learned about the DezNat accounts from a friend, DeVaughn Simper, a vexillologist who works for Colonial Flag. In an interview, Simper indicated he’s generally opposed to SB48 because he wants to keep Utah’s current flag but is doubly concerned about picking a commemorative flag that is similar to the design appropriated by some DezNat accounts.
“The new Utah flag group had absolutely honest intentions,” Simper said, adding that it’s unfortunate some DezNat users have embraced one of the organization’s designs. “Because they’ve done that, we should really alter course on the commemorative flag portion of that bill.”
Only a handful of DezNat accounts seem to have latched onto Martin’s design, though, with many others gravitating toward the blue-and-white Deseret flag. DezNat is not affiliated with or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church spokesman has told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Jonathan Martin said his group’s most recent design is the byproduct of surveys and public outreach, and the organization’s website notes that each element is symbolic. The flag’s five quadrants honor the state’s native tribes, the Ute, Paiute, Navajo, Shoshone and Goshute. The saltire cross pattern represents Utah’s position as the “crossroads of the West,” while the single white star is a nod to its statehood.
And a 2020 survey conducted by the group found that nearly three-quarters of the respondents loved Martin’s flag design or at least thought it was better than Utah’s current state banner. Jonathan Martin said state residents don’t even know what it feels like to have a compelling flag, with the current, 100-year-old version consisting of the state seal on a blue background.
“When you’ve got a great flag, you get it,” Jonathan said. “You don’t have to be convinced.”