Did a Show Low musician really punk the Arizona Legislature with a sham campaign to create an apartheid county?
Visiting from Show Low, musician Jesse Michael-Geronimo Valencia sits in a Phoenix Starbucks, explaining how his four-year plan to create Arizona’s 16th county was all a Borat-like publicity stunt aimed at pimping his rock band and film project.
The idea was subsequently snapped up, irony-free, by a coterie of tax-averse GOP lawmakers. In a legislative season filled with odd and borderline extreme lawmaking, it was one of the oddest. And the borders it crossed were literal.
Valencia, 35, a round-faced fellow whose stringy dark hair and half-grown beard got him labeled the “Dollar Store Jack Black” by his friends, claims that in 2017 he was inspired by season three of David Lynch’s Showtime series Twin Peaks: The Return to create his own world and populate it with fictional versions of himself and his arty pals.
The result was a proposal for Sitgreaves County, which would have sliced off the southern (read: non-Native American) parts of Navajo and Apache Counties to form the new entity. An Army vet with an MFA in creative writing from Northern Arizona University, Valencia began to envision Sitgreaves – which he named for the area’s proximity to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest – as a serious possibility and also as a “Trojan horse” to promote his creative projects.
“It was like, what can we do, what can we use?” says Valencia, lead singer for the Show Low-based rock band Gorky. “I don’t know if you know anything about Show Low, but there are a lot of old, conservative people there…redneck-y people.”
Valencia says a lot of those people liked the idea of Sitgreaves County, which he promoted online and in meetings with local Republican groups, though he describes himself as a “progressive Democrat” and has written songs dissing former president Donald Trump.
Valencia tapped into long-simmering resentments between Native American and non-Native American residents of those counties. Some of the latter resent that their property taxes are used to provide for county-wide services, while those living on the Navajo Nation are exempt from such taxes.
It’s an idea with an ignominious history. In 1982, Governor Bruce Babbitt vetoed a bill passed by the Arizona Legislature that would have created an all-Native county mostly comprised of the Navajo Nation. Babbitt likened the scheme to “segregation” and “apartheid,” saying it would not hold up in court.
Valencia, however, argued that his plan to redraw Apache and Navajo counties was not racist and would benefit the entire region. He even designed an emblem for his supposed hoax (pictured opposite on flag), emblazened with the laurel leaf, a symbol often appropriated by alt-right groups including The Proud Boys. (Valencia says he was unaware of the conection and viewed the leaf as a symbol of victory.)
In March 2019, he appeared before the Arizona House State and International Affairs Committee, where, at the invitation of conservative Republican Representative Walt Blackman of Snowflake, Valencia unveiled his plan for what he called the Northeastern Arizona Development Act.
The proposal was actually for a committee that would study the proposed county, but it was met with hefty skepticism from Democrats, who noted the tribes hadn’t been consulted on the idea and there was no estimate of how much it would cost.
Nevertheless, in 2020, Blackman introduced legislation for a joint study committee on the proposal. The bill went nowhere.
A year later, Republican Senator Wendy Rogers – who like Blackman reps District 6, which includes a swath of southern Navajo County – took up the cause by sponsoring her own proposal, SB 1653. The bill would have ponied up $500,000 to look into the feasibility of the issue.
In February, Rogers introduced a clean-shaven, wonky Valencia as the bill’s author to the appropriations committee, calling herself the “vehicle of this effort,” which she declared was popular with her constituents. Valencia, who says he is part Native American, admitted to the committee that he had not discussed the proposal with the tribes, but he averred that the White Mountain Apache Tribe would make up a substantial portion of the new county.
Over the objections of Democrats, the bill passed out of Appropriations and made it as far as the Committee of the Whole, where, on March 2, SB 1653 self-combusted during debate. The Dems had got hold of a 30-page proposal authored by Valencia in 2017, which contained derogatory references to Native Americans, and read from it on the floor. “They feel entitled to our hard-earned money, despite having nothing to do with our communities,” states one passage of Native American residents.
Senator Victoria Steele said the proposal was “based on an ideology that is no less than racist.”
And Senator Jamescita Mae Peshlakai, a Navajo Nation member, rebutted the economic arguments, describing the ways Native Americans contribute to the state’s economy. “This is our… sacred homeland,” she added. “For others, it’s just property.”
The measure passed out of committee on a voice vote, but Republican sources say the bill is dead and will not get a final vote. Veteran lobbyist Barry Aarons, who represents Apache County and spoke against the bill in Appropriations, agrees.
Aarons says the campaign was a “farce” from beginning to end, and says the idea comes around from time to time. He remembers when La Paz County was carved out of Yuma County in the 1980s, which ended up leaving the state on the hook for some services. As a result, he says that “there were laws passed, which provided very detailed methodologies on how you split or consolidate a county,” and that “trying to get the Legislature to preemptively do this is not in anybody’s best interest.”
On March 16, Valencia issued a long mea culpa, apologizing for the pain he had caused and withdrawing from the bid to create Sitgreaves County, though many of the project’s supporters have promised to keep it alive. Rogers and Blackman had not responded to requests for comment by press time, nor had the Navajo Nation.
Valencia claims he was playing a “role” when he authored the 2017 Sitgreaves screed that landed like a hand grenade on the Senate floor. By his own admission, he got lost in the role, advocating for the proposal until mid-March, and saying and doing “indefensible” things to drive publicity.
Whatever the case, Valencia is back in Show Low, working at his day job, doing social media for WME Theatres, a regional movie chain – and plotting his escape from the White Mountains, he says.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Other notable bills considered during the 2021 Arizona legislative session, due for adjournment April 24.
SB 1420: Consular ID Cards
Recognizes ID cards issued by foreign consulates as valid in Arizona, rolling back a 2011 law deisgned to push Central American immigrants who lack ID from the state. Status at press time: Signed by the governor.
SB 1797/HB 2772: Sports Betting
Hold onto your wallets, sports fans. This bipartisan legislation allows you to lay wagers on sporting events. The tribes are reportedly on board because they can now offer baccarat, craps and roulette at their casinos. Status: Signed by the governor.
HB 2550: Officer Not-So-Friendly
Requires law enforcement to read a statement to anyone wanting to make a complaint about a police officer, warning that a false complaint against a cop is a Class 1 Misdemeanor. Status: Awaiting Senate approval.
SB 1783: Gutting Prop 108
Irked that a majority of voters passed the Prop 108 “Invest in Ed” ballot measure last year, GOP lawmakers came up with a scheme to allow wealthy households to shield earnings from school funding taxes. Status: Awaiting House approval.
SB 1457: Indicting Abortion Doctors
Makes it a class 6 felony to perform abortions sought for genetic conditions, exposing physicians to possible prosecution. Senator Tyler Pace, a Mesa Republican, bucked his party with the deciding vote against it. Status: Awaiting possible reconsideration by Legislature.
SB 1531: Signature Suppression?
One of many controversial voting bills, it would make signature gatherers read aloud an initiative’s wording while canvassing – adding a cumbersome step to the process of putting laws to direct public vote. R sponsors say it’s about “election integrity,” while Ds insist it’s voter suppression. Status: Awaiting House approval.