CD 3: Navajo Candidate James Singer Highlights Bears Ears In Run For Congress
The third in a series on the Democratic candidates challenging Utah's Republican incumbents in this year's congressional midterm races.
James Courage Singer may be the first Native American to run for Congress in Utah, and the 35-year-old progressive Democrat thinks his candidacy could inspire others in this underrepresented community.
No issue has animated Singer's grassroots campaign more than one very near and dear to many Native voters: public lands. In particular, the Bears Ears National Monument. The Salt Lake Community College sociology professor campaigned there last month in his bid to unseat Republican John Curtis for Utah's southeastern 3rd district.
Bears Ears was designated at the end of President Obama's term in 2016 only to have its boundaries significantly reduced by the Trump administration in 2017.
Areas within the monument hold huge significance among five different Native tribes, who each have ancestral ties to the land. Singer, who's Mormon and Navajo, put it this way: Bears Ears is to many Native Americans what Jackson County, Missouri, is to many Mormons.
"For Mormons, it's been said (Jackson County) is where the Garden of Eden is and where the establishment of Zion will take place," Singer said. "It's a very hallowed and sacred land."
"Bears Ears is a very similar thing for a lot of Native tribes. This was a place of creation. This is where some of the tribes feel like they emerged into this world from," Singer added as he sat under a tent at the annual Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition gathering just north of the monument's namesake buttes.
Singer believes it's a religious issue as much as a cultural, environmental or political one.
"It's part of its part of our spirituality. We need to protect it," he said.
In the past several years, the monument has become a political flashpoint in a long debate over public lands. President Donald Trump angered many Natives last year when he came to Utah to sign a proclamation shrinking the monument by about 85 percent. Singer wants to see the boundaries created by President Barack Obama restored.
"This is why I think it's important to have an indigenous perspective in Congress," Singer said. "We have an inclination through our philosophy to think further down the road than just two or four years for every election cycle."
Utah's vast 3rd Congressional District covers the entire eastern part of the state, including huge parcels of public lands. It also covers some of Utah's liberal bastions like southeast Salt Lake County, Moab and portions of San Juan County, where Natives tend to support Democrats.
But Singer knows it's still an uphill battle for his party. Republican Congressman John Curtis, the former mayor of Provo, won the seat in a special election last year with 58 percent of the vote. Unlike Curtis' polarizing predecessor Jason Chaffetz, Curtis has struck a more moderate tone and has held dozens of town halls across the district.
That's why Singer said he's using his campaign to draw attention to Native issues specifically. For example, he said, his grandmother lives on the Navajo reservation and does not have access to running water or electricity.
"Like 40 percent of Navajos don't have running water or electricity, at least on the Utah side" of the reservation, he said.
Singer argued that lack of access is a civil rights issue and a result of systemic racism.
"Access to clean water or access to electricity are basic things that we take for granted. They're practically a right as an American," he said. "Yet for years and years and years, it's just been one bureaucratic way of keeping that access (from) Natives."
After the Inter-Tribal gathering wrapped, Singer drove about 45 minutes east to Blanding. On the west side of town across a ravine is a tiny community called Westwater.
It's only about a quarter mile from Blanding, but the difference is stark: a few dozen structures line the gravel road. There's an audible hum from a generator powering a home nearby.
Outside a small home, Singer met Albert Cly, who has lived in Westwater for 70 years.
"Since 1948, still the same," Cly said.
The elderly Navajo man and his wife have a solar panel. Cly said he helped nearly 30 other homes in Westwater get them a few years ago, too. But he still has to drive his truck into town several times a week to fill up about 20 water jugs to use for cooking and bathing.
"The town people, we asked them to see if they could run a line over here and put up a big water tank," Cly said, gesturing to a lot near his home.
"They're not up for it?" asked Singer. "That really doesn't make a lot of sense. It's just right over there."
Singer asked Cly what he'd like to see happen in Westwater if he was elected.
"Whatever you want to do," Cly said.
"I want you to have water and electricity," Singer said. "That's what I want."
They spoke for a few more minutes. Singer pledged to return and speak to more residents.
As he left Westwater, he thought about how much easier life could be for Cly and his wife if they didn't have to truck in their own water every few days.
"I think once you've been in a situation for so long, it just becomes a new normal where you don't know anything different," he said.
Singer knows many voters of the 3rd District, among the most conservative in the country, have never known anything different than Republican representation. Come November, he hopes he can change that, too.