Some residents in San Juan County criticize Jean Melton, a University of Utah law student, as an outsider.
A former Blanding Elementary school teacher, Melton came back south this election season to mastermind the campaign of six Democratic candidates running for county offices. As part of the campaign, Melton launched a well-publicized registration drive on the Navajo Reservation that led to 1,101 voters being added to the election rolls.Melton is white. Five of her six candidates were Utah Navajos, while another was a Cherokee married to a Navajo. All were fighting to carve a niche in a county that is still powered by white politicos.
That didn't happen. Only incumbent Mark Maryboy, who won his second county commission term, survived voters.
That the Democratic Indian slate didn't win control of county offices isn't earth-shattering news in this Republican-dominated state. Utah's mostly homogenous voting population returns an abundance of white males to local government seats every election season.
But San Juan County is different. Here more than 50 percent of residents are Navajo Indians.
Complicated issues divide residents of Utah's largest county. Within San Juan boundaries is a chunk of the Navajo Reservation, land that technically belongs to a sovereign nation with its own tribal government.
Navajos claim that the tribe and the county has ignored them. They lack essential services, such as roads, water and electricity. And since the county's budget is balanced on its share of royalties from the Navajo oil fields, they want more of a say in how that money is spent.
But county officials say they can't afford to extend services that the tribal government has the responsibility to provide. Some claim reservation residents, who don't pay property taxes, aren't qualified to hold county offices.
Maryboy rebuts that argument."I think that is just a cop-out," he said. "What it really boils down to is these people are citizens of the United States."
Whatever the position, some residents are complaining about the outsiders who branded them as racist during this election season. They blame Melton and her brand of color-coded emotional rhetoric for polarizing county factions. They claim some of the Indian rights activists played loosely with the truth.
"Prior to some people outside of the county starting to build things up, we thought it was a Republican-Democratic point of view," said Blanding Mayor Jim Shumway. "I really didn't appreciate Jean Melton's attack. I thought it hurt both the Indian cause and the white cause.
"Very bluntly, I felt that the animosity and the feelings that occurred were brought from outside the county."
Lt. Gov. Val Oveson agrees with locals, such as Shumway, who feel critics exaggerated the situation. Oveson, who helped monitor polls, said officials interceded and allowed about 100 people to vote when questions arose about their registration status.
"There were a lot of allegations that this was the South, that this was 1964," Oveson said. "There was nobody getting killed. There was nobody getting excluded if they wanted to come in and vote. If they would have had the numbers, there would have been a change."
Shumway, chairman of the county Republican party, thinks the election sparked divisions that might erase some of the strides the county had made toward racial equality.
"Knowing Jean personally, I can say she finds a cause and she will do anything for it. She's one-minded on the thing. Sadly to me, she picked a cause that I think was detrimental to San Juan County."
During the campaign, Melton loudly charged county officials with using scare tactics to intimidate reservation residents, many of whom don't speak English, into not voting. She thinks Navajos were kept off county voting rolls. She feels the election should be set aside because federal laws were violated.
Her statements not only antagonized local officials, but brought regional and national news reporters and a swarm of state and federal monitors to watch the San Juan County polls.
Melton's uncle, State Rep. David Adams, terms her tactics "Machiavellian." Many locals question why Melton worked so hard to erode the support of Adams, R-Monticello.
After three terms in office, Adams is known in Utah's capitol as a strong voice for rural Utah. But Melton charges her uncle with ignoring the interests of the Navajos, who she terms Utah's most isolated citizens.
"I think the white communities in Blanding and Monticello were resentful towards her because of her helping the Navajos down here," Maryboy said. "I don't think the Navajos view her as an outsider. They see her as a very concerned person from Monticello."
Melton acknowledges her critics. She blames fear for the uproar and thinks the election was about change. "They are not very happy with me. They believe in the American system, but what they don't want is the power to be changed," she said.
She downplays her own power. "They have all the resources of the Republican machine in Utah and they're threatened by me and a handful of Indians?"
When Navajos are among the power brokers and more of the county's budget services are extended to reservation residents, everyone will benefit, according to Melton. "If you start building houses and roads and water systems, who's going to benefit? The white people own the lumberyard. They have the licenses to be electricians and plumbers. The whole county will benefit."
The race was hyped as the first time nationally that a bloc of Indians - people traditionally more involved with tribal politics rather than local government - entered a county campaign to claim political voice.
The effort attracted the attention of the national press, with a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times and a series of reports on National Public Radio.
Melton's group appeared tireless in getting its message to voters - and the media. They sold T-shirts emblazoned with their candidates' names and passed out sample picture ballots for voters who didn't speak English. They marshaled a crew of volunteers, including drivers who went to the reservation to pick up voters.
Curiously, despite their efforts, voter turn-out slipped slightly. In 1988, 67 percent of the county's 6,050 registered voters cast ballots. Last Tuesday, on a snowy Southeastern Utah election day, only 65 percent of the 6,862 voters went to the polls.
Maryboy thinks a majority of voters stuck to racial lines. The publicity surrounding the Navajo registration effort inspired more white voters to vote in an effort to maintain the status quo. "They were ready for us," said Maryboy, who regularly charges his county colleagues with racism. "They didn't want five clones of Maryboy running the office and so they had to get out and vote.
"I think we still have conservative feelings on the part of the white communities thinking that Navajos aren't capable, they aren't qualified. You don't give an Indian a chance at administration, especially an elected office."
The Navajos' share of election victory came by winning attention for their cause, some say. "Despite the loss by most of the Navajo candidates, it was an important statement about broadening the range of people who participate in local politics," said Bruce Plenk, a Salt Lake lawyer who spent last Tuesday outside the Blanding polls.
Maryboy promises his people will continue to fight for a share of power. He is already looking ahead. "I've been talking to some Navajos that voted," he said. "They are determined. Looking at the numbers, it looks like we can actually get a new county commissioner in two years."