Two Navajo Democrats won an election last November in Southern Utah’s San Juan County. In the lead-up to the election, the county was redistricted after coming under fire for alleged racial gerrymandering.
Navajo Willie Grayeyes won a tight race for county commissioner by just 159 votes. But recently, his opponent, Republican Kelly Laws, who is white, challenged Grayeyes’ residency in court, which could have cost Grayeyes the election. Laws argued Grayeyes lived in Arizona not Utah. On Tuesday a 7th District judge in southern Utah ruled in favor of Grayeyes.
Zak Podmore is a writer at the Canyon Echo Journal in San Juan County, who has been following the case. KUER’s Erik Neumann talk to him about what the verdict means for San Juan County.
Erik Neumann: Why is this important in San Juan County?
Zak Podmore: The election of Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, two Democratic Navajo candidates back in November was a big turning point in the county. That came on the heels of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation. But in recent history, this is the first Democratic majority commission and it's the first ever Navajo majority commission that the county has ever had. So, the judge's ruling to allow Willie Grayeyes to stay on the commission is big in that it upsets the power balance here in the county for the first time in history and shifts the leadership further south where the Navajo Nation is located as opposed to where it's been in the past in the majority white towns of Blanding in Monticello.
EN: This has obviously been controversial for a long time: where Willie Grayeyes lives. What persuaded the judge to come to this conclusion with the case?
ZP: I was at the trial that took place in Monticello on January 22nd and the judge's ruling draws on two major points to conclude that Grayeyes is, in fact, a San Juan County resident. The first is that the petitioner — his Republican opponent in the election in the fall, Kelly laws — waited too long to file his complaint. The judge says that the statutes ask that any complaints over voting be made in a timely manner and Laws waited until the very last possible moment, almost 40 days after the election took place, to file his petition.
The other major finding in the ruling was that Grayeyes is, in fact, a San Juan County resident. He has served in tribal government and in education and nonprofit roles in San Juan County, Utah all of his adult life. And even though he doesn't own a home in San Juan County or according to Grayeyes’ testimony, he spends between 60 and 80 percent of his time in Utah. The judge found no evidence to suggest otherwise.
EN: Gray's residency was discussed before by a federal judge. And now it’s been ruled on a more local judge. So does that have any bearing on whether it resolves this dispute?
ZP: Kelly laws said during his testimony at the trial that this was the last chance to get a fair hearing on the case because it was in district court in Utah as opposed to a federal court where the trial took place over the summer. That's a common sentiment you hear in San Juan County, that federal court is biased against the residents here. That’s in part due to the fact that a federal court forced redistricting on the county in 2017, which led to this Navajo majority in 2018. So the fact that this complaint failed in Utah district court does seem to have some indication that this is the last kind of chance that there will be to challenge it.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.