Rebecca Benally and Rob Miller are civic-minded: Benally, as a Navajo deeply engaged in developing a more prosperous San Juan County, Utah, and preserving her heritage independent of powerful forces beyond the county that, in her opinion, would permanently damage that heritage; and Miller, as a partisan on a years-long mission to create a more relevant Utah Democratic Party.
However, hard-edged tactics of some activists inside and outside of the party have dampened that community-spirited activity, at least through involvement in political parties, at least for the time being.
Over the past two years, Miller has been the target of rumor-mongering and innuendo related to unproven allegations of sexual misconduct. The inability of UDP leadership to resolve the matter hints at deeper divisions whose roots lie in the raw emotional and organizational power of single-issue politics, specifically take-no-prisoners feminism and one-dimensional environmentalism. UDP is not a “big tent” party.
The stories of Rob Miller and Rebecca Benally set the stage for a larger show that will play out over the next couple of months as Utah Democrats select leadership to map strategy for the 2020 presidential election cycle, seek donors, recruit candidates, and project core values.
MILLER HAS HAD NO WAY TO CONFRONT HIS ACCUSERS or clear his name, other than through friends and professional colleagues vouching for his character.
Miller is “an incredibly gregarious man. … “ wrote former UDP field organizer Craig Axford in a letter sent to members of the party’s Executive and Central committees. Axford worked with Miller over a number of years on party business. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that Rob is one of the most outgoing individuals I’ve ever worked with. I never observed any interactions that gave me the impression there was anything more to these encounters beyond a genuine affection for people generally.”
Ironically perhaps, former San Juan County Commissioner Benally also was systematically defamed over roughly the same period. She ran afoul of an insular, male-dominated county Democratic Party apparatus and its single-issue allies — the same kind of structural “patriarchy” many of Miller’s feminist critics believe he represents. Yet Benally found no support among progressives based in Salt Lake City; instead she found well-organized opponents.
That’s not surprising. Benally criticized designation of Bears Ears National Monument; she collaborated with high-ranking Republicans; she didn’t trust the federal government because of its dismal historical record on Native American affairs; and she had ideological disagreements with the party about the importance of local control over county governance and management of public lands. Specifically, she said publicly that:
- Converting sacred lands to a monument will ultimately be controlled by “bureaucrats unfamiliar with Navajo history and traditional ways.”
- The federal government has broken promises of trust responsibilities and formal treaties again and again and again for the past 200 years.
- Promises related to creation of jobs managing the monument are not guaranteed.
- The federal government’s history of managing national monuments on sacred lands has been inconsistent, even disastrous.
- Groups outside of San Juan County — deep-pocketed environmental groups — should not be able to dictate the future of the region’s lands or pretend to speak for Navajos.
Benally, who has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, school principal, and college administrator, lost a close primary election in June to longtime San Juan County politico Kenneth Maryboy and was not on November’s ballot.
ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO, nine days before Utah Democrats were scheduled to select Peter Corroon’s replacement as chair, long-time party stalwart and candidate Miller announced his withdrawal from the race.
He’d been the target of allegations of “unwanted and inappropriate sexual conduct” vaguely outlined in a letter dated May 25, sent to the party’s Executive Committee, and leaked to news media outlets. The letter should’ve triggered a process to ensure that both the complainants and Miller received an impartial and confidential hearing under the party’s constitution and bylaws. That process really didn’t exist – at least to the extent that it could actually be applied.
LETTER ALLEGING “UNWANTED AND INAPPROPRIATE SEXUAL CONDUCT”
Despite the public silence of the letter’s signers and suspicious timing of its release, the letter produced a virtual avalanche of personal attacks directed at Miller. The slurs ran the gamut from vicious and obscene to relatively mild censure. A Salt Lake Tribune reporter characterized a comment from a former party official as Miller displaying “boorish” behavior.
Reaction on social media echoed a dangerous period in which a bully, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was allowed to create a climate of intimidation and fear based on rumor and innuendo.
At the time, I wrote that it was “despicable.”
Although Miller has continuously and vigorously denied any wrongdoing, the ordeal has turned his world upside down: his reputation shattered, close relationships damaged if not destroyed, and ability to earn a living impaired. People who believed Miller should receive due process were accused of “victim shaming” and “misogyny.”
“I always believed in innocent until proven guilty,“ Miller said at the time. “There’s a loud, strong faction of the party that doesn’t believe that and [is] putting identity politics ahead of truth, justice, and the American way.”
It wasn’t just one “loud, strong faction.” Young Democrats of Utah and the Democratic leaders in House District 24 (an area of downtown Salt Lake City, Capitol Hill, and the Avenues) piled on.
“Given the sensitive nature of this matter, we ask candidate Rob Miller to formally withdraw,” leaders of the Young Democrats said in a statement. “Given the circumstances, we don’t believe Mr. Miller can effectively unify or lead the Democratic Party.”
The group also said it wants to “recognize the bravery of those who have come forth, and encourage others to offer their love and support. We all need to start by believing.”
Michael Iverson and Maria C. Hiatt, legislative district chair and vice-chair, respectively, echoed those sentiments and also called for Miller to withdraw.
Without citing any evidence or acknowledging Miller’s due process rights, respected party leader Brian King, Utah House of Representatives minority leader, weighed in. “Based on my knowledge of some of the women who signed [the letter), including Jill (Haring), I believe we can’t just ignore the letter as being a dirty trick or a last-minute maneuver for political gain.”
For the most part, however, silence of prominent Democrats — past and present — has been deafening.
THE LETTER JOINTLY SIGNED by seven Democrats prominent in party circles was missing important details. It did not indicate who exactly was complaining about what or even if each had first-hand knowledge about anything claimed. Who were alleged victims? Who witnessed the alleged misconduct? When and where did each supposed incident occur?
For example, allegation “G” charged that “Mr. Miller appeared to be harassing a female volunteer at a campaign office and was told to stop.” He “appeared to be?” What comprised the harassment? Which of the signers personally witnessed the incident? Was the volunteer one of the signers? When did this supposedly happen? What campaign office? Can anybody corroborate the allegation?
Only accusation “F” rises to the level of possible criminal conduct. Again, signers of the letter offered no evidence. There’s been no public indication any of the signers filed a complaint with police. Civil rights advocate and former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson, Miller’s pro bono advocate, sent documents to members of the Executive and Central committees to rebut the charge. Included in those documents were screen grabs from a private conversation on Facebook that depict a close, platonic relationship between Miller and the supposed victim.
Virtually every news media outlet in Utah that covered the story and even a few from out of state and country reported the signers “said they witnessed several instances of sexual misconduct” — a broad brush that can mean dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In fact, the signers did not say that. At least two signers even admitted they had no personal knowledge of any claims. No signer said in so many words, “This is what I witnessed or experienced.”
Since 2017, the state Democratic Party’s Judicial Standing Committee has determined on two occasions that it had no jurisdiction to investigate the allegations against Miller much less punish him. He had chosen to sever ties with the party.
UDP subsequently approved anti-harassment policies and procedures, but the policies do not define “harassment.” Instead, UDP’s website links to related information from Feminist Majority, an influential activist group based in Virginia unaffiliated with either the Utah Democratic Party or the Democratic National Committee. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Feminist Majority cannot legally participate in a campaign of a Democratic (or Republican) candidate.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s explanation is likely a more legally credible source. It says that “it is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. …
“Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious,harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” (italics added)
The Utah Antidiscrimination Act likely would not apply to the Utah Democratic Party because it employs less than 15 people; organizations beneath that floor are exempt.
Discrimination based on color, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and/or genetic information is not addressed by UDP’s new policy. It exclusively focuses on gender.
As part of its anti-harassment initiative, UDP has sponsored workshops on sexual harassment and discrimination based on “microaggressions” – subtle, often unintentional, statements or actions that reveal unconscious biases toward members of marginalized communities.
In a move that might’ve seemed to Miller like something straight out of a Franz Kafka novel or a recurring nightmare, the 2017 complaint was refiled based on the new policies, which, of course, didn’t exist when the original letter was sent to the Executive Committee and leaked to news outlets. The Central Committee approved in December what would’ve been a closed “trial” on Feb. 2. A letter from five of the original signers — with a headline of “Ya,ll screwed the pooch …” — critical of the party’s approach in dealing with the brouhaha was sent to its Executive and Judicial committees and anonymously leaked to news outlets. UDP violated its own recently created rules, they said.
Aside from the letter’s substance, this latest episode renewed privacy concerns. There’s no indication the party has the ability to ensure confidentiality of its proceedings.
The “trial” was abruptly cancelled just days before it was to begin.
“Their (Central Committee) resolution picked the date and time of trial. I had work scheduled that day but was told by Chair Daisy Thomas that the trial would go on with or without me,” said Miller. “I then officially and reasonably asked for an extension to prepare for the trial, to obtain counsel and to allow me the opportunity to complete my previous work obligation, but that letter was never answered.”
The U.S. Constitution says you cannot convict someone of violating a law (or by extension in this case, a policy) that didn’t exist when the alleged infraction happened. The “trial” would’ve amounted to an ex post facto application of party policies.
Miller has called for an “open, public, and fair” presentation of evidence overseen perhaps by the League of Women Voters or any “fair, competent, and unbiased organization” — instead of a “kangaroo court.”
(Editor: Requests for comment regarding issues raised in this article were solicited from Thomas and every other member of the party’s Executive Committee, UDP’s primary policy-making body. Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake County mayor and member of the committee, advised that “it’s imperative the Utah Democratic Party move forward and my suggestion to Daisy (Thomas, UDP chair) is that we do not comment.”)
WHILE MILLER WAS BEING SMEARED ON SOCIAL MEDIA, similarly mean-spirited rhetoric was adopted in the months leading up to the June 2018 Democratic primary in San Juan County by some pro-Bears Ears National Monument activists — surrogates of Native American tribes. They were supported by San Juan County Democratic Party leadership, many Salt Lake City-based Democrats, and a well-funded coalition of environmentalists and tourist- and outdoor-recreation businesses from across the country.
The surrogates used misogyny and racism to attack political opponents, even other Native Americans.
Here’s a sampling directed for the most part at anti-Bears Ears National Monument Democrat Rebecca Benally, who was seeking re-election as San Juan County commissioner:
- Virgil Johnson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute and president of the Utah Tribal Leaders Association, referred to Benally as a “token” Navajo at a Jan. 23, 2018, public forum sponsored by the environmental group Utah Valley Earth Forum in Orem, Utah. He repeated a line of personal attack directed at Benally by Shawn Chapoose, co-chairman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., several weeks earlier.
- At a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, 2016, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif, also targeted her: “Saying that the Navajo Nation supports this land grab because one Navajo woman acting as a commissioner is like using her as a token spokesperson for her nation.” To which then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, replied: “There is absolutely no excuse for the degrading and disrespectful way in which Congressman Ruiz referenced Commissioner Benally. She in no way deserves to be called a ‘token,’ nor to have her legitimacy as an elected official questioned.”
- In a Facebook post dated Feb. 28, 2017, a commenter identified as Kenneth Maryboy, who at the time was a board member of the activist nonprofit based in Salt Lake City Utah Diné Bikéyah, former delegate from Utah to the Navajo Nation Council, and former San Juan County commissioner, referred to fellow tribal members who are political opponents as “tame Indians.” Maryboy was Benally’s opponent in the race for commissioner.
- On Jan. 6, 2018, The Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed by Garon Coriz, a Santo Domingo (N.M) Pueblo and physician living in Richfield, Utah, with a headline likely written by a Tribune editor that referred to anti-monument Navajos, including Benally, as “window dressing” in service of Trump’s agenda. “Ultimately, Benally and her clique are the hammer and chisel in the state’s efforts to chip away at tribal sovereignty. … In Indian Country, with the history of individual tribal members sometimes betraying their tribes for a handout or payoff, she has become a pariah.” Coriz resurrected “Uncle Tom.” Among African Americans, there’s probably no insult more inflammatory.
The stories of Benally and
Miller have rippled through the Utah Democratic Party over the past two years,
discouraging potential volunteers, donors, and candidates, according to
documents gathered by Anderson in his defense of Miller. Treatment of Benally
in particular has likely set back party development in rural Utah years if not decades.
The longer these matters are
unchecked, the greater will be the harm to Benally and Miller personally and
the Democratic Party in general. Its pledge as reflected in its Constitution
“to open, honest ideals in the workings of this party … and to sustain the
human and constitutional rights of all persons” will be a justifiable butt of mockery.
In an era of unaccountable, no-holds-barred character assassination, anyone who chooses to participate in public life can be a target.
POSTSCRIPT: Utah Democratic Party’s state delegates will be electing executive officers at their 2019 State Organizing Convention on June 22 at Park City (Utah) High School. Daisy Thomas, current chair, is seeking re-election. Quang Dang, current chair of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, and longtime party activist Becky Moss also are candidates. Nadia Mahallati is a candidate for vice chair. Jay Seegmiller, who ran close races against powerful Republican Rep. Greg Curtis in 2004, 2006, and 2008, is also a declared candidate for vice chair, as is Archie A. Williams III. Others interested in running for the statewide positions of chair, vice chair, treasurer, or secretary have until April 6 to file.
Nonprofit leaders have an obligation to address sexual harassment. What’s more, nonprofit organizations and, potentially, board members possibly can face legal liability for violations of state or federal laws that prohibit sexual harassment. The National Council of Nonprofits has compiled these resources intended to help nonprofits prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
(Keshlear was director of communication for the Utah Democratic Party during the 2007–2008 election cycle. He worked with Rob Miller during that period.)
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