Kael Weston: Davina Smith’s courageous candidacy can motivate a state

Dine woman’s run for the Legislature can help to encourage others to challenge Republican rule.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davina Smith (left) and her father Roy Smith ride their horses to the Monument Valley Welcome Center on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

There are few hometown neighborhoods in the United States as iconic as Monument Valley. The stunning desert setting remains the ultimate reminder of geologic time – and perspective in our era of pandemic, drought and petty politics.

On a recent cold and windy day in mid-December, Davina Smith, accompanied by her father, rode a horse named Oreo from their family’s corral, located under towering red cliffs, to the Monument Valley Tribal Park Visitor Center. This is the part of Utah and America where Davina was born and raised. A place of indigenous generations that span hundreds and hundreds of years and who built homes and farmed the land well before persecuted Mormon pioneers trekked westward.

The father-daughter trot took an hour. Family members, neighbors, friends and other parka-clad supporters from as far away as Wasatch County and Salt Lake City gathered under slanted sunlight and kept warm by eating mutton stew.

All of us were there to share in Davina’s announcement as a Democratic Party candidate for House District 69. The vast area in southeastern Utah is currently represented by the controversial Republican politician Phil Lyman. Lyman, who spent time in jail after being convicted of federal charges following a protest on public lands while on an ATV, was later pardoned by former President Trump. In past elections, the Blanding-based GOP representative has been reelected by large margins. The new district combines San Juan and Grand Counties, including the outdoor recreation mecca of Moab, which makes it more politically competitive.

Davina Smith is the first Dine, or Navajo, woman to run for a seat in the Utah Legislature. Her decision is already historic in this way. But the campaign would be even more so if she were to win, which will take help — donations, volunteering, spreading word and building momentum. Smith’s background has prepared her to be an effective lawmaker in Utah’s capital city defined by skyscrapers, not sandstone buttes. She has considerable experience in conveying indigenous wisdom regarding the protection of Utah’s public lands, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, and various other rural Utah educational and health initiatives.

Smith’s candidacy also sends a powerful message to demoralized Democrats throughout our state. The politically lopsided Utah Legislature recently approved new electoral maps that were widely viewed as gerrymandered to favor Republicans, particularly the congressional map. These politicians ignored fairer maps proposed by Utah’s Independent Redistricting Commission, a less partisan and more transparent process passed by voters in a 2018 ballot proposition.

The effect has been chilling to democracy in our state. Not a single Democratic Party candidate has yet announced a run for Congress in any of the four districts in Utah, leaving Republican incumbents so far to battle intra-party challengers only. How much more extreme will the GOP in Utah become if left unchallenged by Democrats on future Election Days?

The marketplace of political ideas in the Beehive State has taken a hit, by design. Unfortunately, the new “Utah Way” seems to be one of slamming doors shut, avoiding sunlight during deliberations of great public importance, and disenfranchising voters by manipulating their ballot box options. Too many of Utah’s politicos appear afraid of free market-style political competition. Too many of them still dismiss a substantial portion of “we the people.”

I drove six hours in my old truck from Salt Lake to be at Davina Smith’s announcement for a straightforward reason. This compelling candidate’s personal story, deep experience, and quiet confidence will, I believe, motivate many Utahns — Republicans with a conscience, principled and persevering Democrats and others who are unaffiliated — to help ensure more political balance in our fast-growing and diversifying state.

Davina has chosen to lead and not be defeatist. She is the latest example of what other strong women, and other strong Democrats, in Utah have done for many decades: stand up, speak out, and step forward when it matters.

In Davina Smith of Monument Valley, hometown Zip Code 84536, Utah has a candidate who demonstrates the hardest and most important kind of courage – the courage of one.

Personal courage that can motivate two, a group, a tribe, a county, a district, a state – and even a country.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, author, teacher, former U.S. State Department official and Rotarian, was the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.