One person’s “fair” is another person’s “unjust”
By Jordan Winters
with contributions from the USC Rural Reporting Team
In San Juan County, one person’s fairness is another person’s injustice. Perhaps nothing has underscored the debate on political fairness more than residents’ reactions to the redistricted voting boundaries.
After Navajo residents of San Juan County sued the County, claiming that district lines drawn in 1984 were racially motivated, a federal district court ruled that Navajo voters were disenfranchised by the district lines. It packed a majority of Navajo voters into County Commission District 3, while Districts 1 and 2 held non-Native, or white, majorities.
“Even though right now the Navajos currently represent over 50 percent of the population, somehow they only ended up with one-third of the Commission in the old system,” said Steve Boos, the Navajo Nation attorney. “So, how was that really fair to them?”
But efforts to rectify those wrongs have been controversial. The court appointed a “special master” from out of state to draw up the new map. The new district lines distribute the population evenly across the districts, with no consideration of race. Yet, the community is still grappling to understand if voters’ voices are balanced within these new district lines.
Commission district candidate Kenneth Maryboy, for one, is pleased with the outcome. “I believe it was fair and it should have happened many, many, many years ago. That way we would have been counting the census of everybody else in San Juan County and be fair about who should vote,” he said.
But Blanding resident Walt Lacy believes that the political situation on the ground extends beyond a federal court case.
“With a commission with only three commissioners [disenfranchisement] is going to happen no matter how your district is split. People are going to be disenfranchised,” he said.
Under the new voting district lines, Navajo voters are a majority of the voter base in two of the three districts of San Juan County. Navajo candidates are running in two of the three districts, which could give them control of the Commission.
Utah State University emeritus professor of History Bob McPherson says a number of voters believe voting power should correspond to financial contributions to the county coffers. The concern is that the Navajo, who live on the reservation, don’t pay property tax, which creates a situation where there is “representation without taxation.”
“We don’t know how people are going to vote,” he said. “But if we’re saying from a racial sense, Navajos are going to vote for Navajos, and Anglos are going to vote for Anglos, you’ve got a situation where two-thirds of the County Commissioners who decide how tax money is spent are Navajo people who don’t make the money. So if they’re not making the money, and they can raise taxes and lower taxes and that’s within the rights of the County Commission, do you want taxation without representation? Because that’s tyranny.”
This argument is refuted by all three county commissioners. District 2 Commissioner Phil Lyman said that the Navajo reservation lands bring money in other forms to the county, through oil royalties or federal school grants.
“If I rent a house, I don’t pay property taxes, that doesn’t change my ability to vote,” Commissioner Phil Lyman said. “I’m not in the camp with people who say they shouldn’t get a vote if they don’t pay taxes. That’s not the way we operate. ”
Commissioner Rebecca Benally explained that property taxes are not the only way that a population can contribution financially to local government. The Navajo Nation is the biggest contributor to the San Juan County tax base because of the oil fields and other federal programs.
“When you look at numbers and dollars, San Juan County receives more money because of the reservation,” Benally said. “Those go into the schools, and PILT — payment in lieu of taxes — that comes from the federal government.”
Benally explained that Navajo voters living on the reservation are dually taxed: They not only contribute taxes at the local, state and federal levels, but also pay taxes to the Navajo Nation.
At the same time, Commissioner Lyman believes that while the contributions to the tax base may be proportionate, the new district lines have not brought fairness to the county. The new lines split up Blanding into the three different districts.
“There’s nobody in my neighborhood who’s in my district or my precinct. It was very specific. Deliberate disenfranchisement of me from my constituents, from my neighborhood, from my town. I think it was done maliciously.” said Lyman. Lyman points out that the same federal judge who ordered the redistricting also presided over his trial involving the protest in Recapture Canyon in 2014.
Likewise, District 1 Commissioner candidate Kelly Laws, a Blanding resident, found that the new lines lacked fairness since they took the redistricting power out of the hands of all San Juan County locals. The lawsuit was backed by the Navajo Nation that is based out of Window Rock, Arizona — an entity that Laws views as an outsider.
“This is a prime example of special interests influencing people who get their way. I think you have as many people in the south part of the county that are as upset about this as in the north part of the county. It’s very irritating and it’s concerning that one [federal judge] can decide how to totally disrupt a county the way they’ve done it,” said Laws. “It’s really a joke the way they’ve done it.”
The anger that the Blanding community members feel about redistricting does not exist in a vacuum. To many, this is just the most recent example of federal overreach and interference in local issues.
Nichole Perkins held back tears as she described the stolen artifacts raid by federal agents in Blanding in 2009, which resulted in the suicide of a local physician James Redd. “The raids-- when they came and raided Dr. Redd, and his family and the other people here. You saw all the local people, they came in with guns and vehicles just like we were ISIS or something,” she said.
In a separate incident in 2014, Lyman was federally convicted of trespassing on public lands after leading an ATV protest ride through Recapture Canyon, which was closed off by federal officials
“It set him up for more loyalty,” Perkins said. “He took one for us and that meant a lot to our community.”
The legacy of local versus federal tension, Benally said, was intensified with the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016 under President Barack Obama. But only one year after the designation, Benally believes the locals had won, after President Donald Trump reduced the monument by over a million acres.
“The current presidential administration versus the previous Obama administration, no matter what people say, I believe that the current administration listened to the grassroots people in San Juan County. The presidential administration didn’t have to listen to only 15,000 people out of millions of people in this country, but they did,” said Benally.
Now, the redistricting has revived accusations not just distrust of federal government but skepticism of all outside forces.
Commission candidate Logan Monson said, “I think that is really the biggest problem is bigger organizations coming in and saying you deserve something that you’re not giving them, this is how I’ll help you.”
“Native people do not feel that there was an issue or that there is an issue. Like I said, how disrespectful is that for someone to come in basically and say, ‘Well you just don’t realize that there’s an issue, so let us educate you.’ It’s offensive. It just boggles my mind,” said Kim Henderson.
“I think we’ve been more than fair with the Navajo people and I know many, many Navajo people feel the same way. That we treat them a lot better than they get treated by their own government in Window Rock.” said Bruce Adams.
But some Navajo residents of San Juan County disagree.
“Our Native American community was not being heard. And they would like to be heard,” said Melinda Blackhorse, a candidate for the school board.
Lucretia Lee, a resident of Montezuma Creek, says, “When an issue comes up how does [the county] take care of it? If it was Monticello they would just fix it right then and there. But if it’s here, it goes through a lot of run around.”
For the candidates who are running for county commissioner in the old Navajo majority district, Kenneth Maryboy and Rebecca Benally, it doesn’t matter whether the source of Native American discontent comes from inside the county or from outside sources.
“At some point in time people are going to come around and start dealing with the issues of how it should have been. And people are going to have to start working at it,” said Maryboy. “There is no way around it.”
“I think history is history. What we have to worry about is today,” said Benally. “Yes, we do have to understand where we came from, and where we are to make better decisions for the future. Yes, Native Americans, it took them awhile to vote in the state of Utah. While we cannot let history drive today, we as Navajo people understand that it is our right. And that that is a way we exercise what we believe in.”
For Navajo voters hopeful they would see potentially two Navajo commissioners following this year’s election, the future remains uncertain. Uncertainty remains on who the Democratic candidate is-- Willie Greyeyes was taken off the ballot for a residency violation and Marylene Tahy has not yet received the support of the Democratic party. Since that is the pivotal district, a Navajo candidate could make a significant difference in the political makeup of the commission.
Debates over what is fair are not likely to be settled soon, if ever. But political engagement in San Juan County has been vigorous. In 2016, voter turnout in San Juan County was more than ten percent higher than the national average. And the special election required by redistricting is generating even more interest.
And while residents of Blanding may be discontent at their city’s divide in the redistricting, the County Clerk’s office has received over 200 applications by Republican voters to vote in the District 3 Commissioner’s Democratic primary.
“The sooner everyone grows up and understands that whether it’s local, county, state or federal issues, and not make it a party issue, we can have a better country. We can cooperate, collaborate, and appreciate diversity,” said Benally.