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In one Utah county, redrawing voting maps led to the historic shift for Navajo lawmakers

A historic shift took place in San Juan County, Utah, on Tuesday, when more than 100 years of control by white conservatives on the county commission came to an end.

For the first time, voters elected two Native Americans to the three-seat commission, an outcome some in the region anticipated after court-mandated commission redistricting in 2017. Last year, a federal court ordered that gerrymandered districts that favored largely white, Republican communities be redrawn.

Navajos are a slight majority of the population of San Juan County, but historically only constituted a majority in one of the three commission districts, where they had held a seat since the 1980s. The new district maps were drawn by a court-appointed expert and put into effect in December, giving the Navajo a voting majority in two of the three districts. The Navajo Nation reservation overlaps with a large section of the southeastern part of the county.

Democrat Willie Grayeyes won the seat in District 2, the only competitive race and swing seat after redistricting changed the majority there from white to Native American.

Grayeyes made it onto the ballot despite the county taking him off. Officials said he did not reside in San Juan County, but U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ordered Grayeyes’ reinstatement in August, according to court documents. He said his focus now is to bring everyone to the table.

“There needs to be collaboration. There needs to be teamwork,” Grayeyes said. “We are serving the people, and we’re not here to just serve ourselves. I don’t believe that there’s only hope, but there will be working together … we can all sit down and talk and see what we can do instead of not even talking to each other.”

The District 3 winner, Democrat Kenneth Maryboy, has previously served as a commissioner. He beat the incumbent Rebecca Bennally in the primary. Bennally is a moderate Democrat who sometimes sided with Republicans on contentious issues like the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

The current commission chairman, Republican Bruce Adams, who ran uncontested in District 1, said he looks forward to working with both of the incoming commissioners, but he thinks there may be a learning curve.

“I know that they have made a lot of promises to the people on the reservation about some of things they’re going to be able to do,” Adams said. “But I don’t know how they’re going to be able to fulfill some of those promises because of the relationship that San Juan County has with the Navajo Nation.”

Road maintenance and utility delivery were big campaign issues for Navajo voters. Yet existing agreements dictate that the sovereign Navajo Nation has jurisdiction over such matters, while the county has limited influence, Adams said.

“I just think that the voice[s] of the people have been [heard] at the ballot box,” Adams said. “And I look forward to working with these two new commissioners and hope that we can provide an equal amount of services to all the citizens of San Juan County.”

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