Special to the Times|Krista Allen
Willie Grayeyes, left, talks to Paul Smallcanyon after he voted at Naatsis’aan Chapter Tuesday. Grayeyes won a seat on the San Juan County (Utah) Commission.
Published November 13, 2018
CHINLE — With a lead of 95 votes and only a few ballots left to be counted, San Juan County (Utah) Commission candidate Willie Grayeyes has asked for his lawsuit against county and state officials to be dismissed.
Grayeyes’ suit stemmed from allegations by one of his opponents, Wendy Black, that he should not be on the ballot because he does not live in San Juan County, a contention Grayeyes denies. He had previously won a preliminary injunction allowing him to appear on the ballot until the suit was settled, and the election occurred in the meantime.
With the election over and Grayeyes victorious, “there is no other relief to be provided by the court,” explained Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, which had filed accompanying voting rights lawsuits against the county.
Grayeyes and his co-plaintiff, Terry Whitehat, still want the county to pay their attorney fees. U.S. Judge David Nuffer has scheduled a settlement conference on the monetary aspects of the suit for this afternoon in Moab, Utah.
Reached on the road to Moab, Grayeyes said he feels “good” about the election and finally being able to put the contention over his candidacy to rest.
“The people have spoken, loudly,” Grayeyes said.
He emphasized that he will be a commissioner for all his constituents, white and Navajo, and he will not retaliate for the racism he believes was shown to him.
“The people have to be served with the idea of impartiality and equality,” he said.
As for the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument, a cause Grayeyes has espoused as a leader of the pro-monument group Utah Diné Bikéyah, Grayeyes is confident that will come about in spite of vehement opposition from San Juan County Republicans.
“We already prayed about that,” he said. “We expect to hear something about that very soon.”
Latest figures show Grayeyes, a Navajo Democrat, with 900 votes to 805 for his Republican opponent, Kelly G. Laws, after a contentious election year during which the county was ordered by a federal judge to redraw its districts for both the county commission and school board.
The court found the existing districts, which had not been updated in three decades, were racially gerrymandered to give greater clout to white voters, even though Native Americans hold a slight majority in the county.
Grayeyes’ election, for the first time ever, shifts the balance of power toward the Natives, who come January will hold two of the three commission seats. It also gives the commission a Democratic majority in a county where conservative Republicans — including current commissioner and states’ rights activist Phil Lyman, who clinched a state house seat Tuesday — have held sway for decades.
“They (white Republicans) won’t be able to just outvote us (Navajos) every time we want something,” explained Whitehat, Grayeyes’ neighbor in Navajo Mountain and co-plaintiff in the suit. “We’re still going to have a rough road, because change is hard, but at the moment I’m elated.”
In a press release, Gorman expressed similar sentiments.
“The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is very satisfied,” he stated. “The preliminary injunction did the job … There is much appreciation to the attorneys that took the case to the federal district court.”
However, he cautioned, “while Grayeyes and the Navajo people in San Juan County prevailed in this case, I expect much more hardline stances against Navajo leadership in San Juan County.”
Grayeyes thinks the opposition to his leadership will fizzle out in time, as his Anglo constitutents come to know him as a fair and even-handed leader.
“It’s not going to be forever,” he shrugged. “This is a change that has been coming for a long time. They’re just going to have to accept it.”
Whitehat revealed he has filed a criminal complaint against San Juan County Clerk/Auditor John David Nielsen, who admitted during the court case he backdated Black’s complaint against Grayeyes so it would appear not to have missed the deadline to file election complaints.
Grayeyes supports Whitehat’s action, even though he will have to work with Nielsen come January.
“They tried to punish me just for running,” he said. “Now it backfired. He (Nielsen) should be punished in whatever way he wanted to punish me.”
Meanwhile, there are still several voting rights lawsuits between the county and the Navajo Nation that have yet to be resolved.