Election Day 2017 brought historic wins for minority candidates across the country: Danica Roem, the first transgender member of the Virginia House of Delegates; Ravinder Bhalla, the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey; Andrea Jenkins, the first transgender black woman ever elected in the U.S., to the Minneapolis City Council; Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia, the first black mayor of Helena, Montana; and many more.
Less noticed, but just as extraordinary, was the mayoral election in Hildale, Utah, a town long controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist, white supremacist, homophobic, totalitarian cult controlled by its “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, who’s now serving a life sentence plus 20 years in a Texas prison for child sexual abuse.
Donia Jessop held a 25-vote lead out of 167 ballots cast over incumbent FLDS Mayor Philip Barlow in the mail-in election; the returns are unofficial until an official canvass is completed. Jessop is a former FLDS member who left the sect five years ago after she says FLDS leaders tried to break up her family.
“It was Warren Jeffs tearing the families apart,” Jessop told Hatewatch. “My family was supposed to be taken apart and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that, so my husband and I and our children moved away.”
Hildale is on the Utah/Arizona border, half of a community known as Short Creek — on the Arizona side of town, it’s Colorado City, which will hold municipal elections in 2018.
Short Creek was founded by a polygamist offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream Mormon Church, in 1913. The believers sought a remote locale to practice plural marriage, which the LDS Church had abandoned as a doctrine in 1890.
The FLDS grew out of a split in the initial settlers, and Warren Jeffs’ father Rulon led the church in Short Creek from 1986 until his death in 2002, when Warren Jeffs became “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator,” marrying most of his father’s nearly two dozen wives.
As the FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs didn’t just instill polygamy as a fundament of the faith; white supremacy and hatred for homosexuals were central tenets as well.
“The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth,” Jeffs preached in one sermon.
“Today you can see a black man with a white woman, et cetera,” he said. “A great evil has happened on this land because the devil knows that if all the people have Negro blood, there will be nobody worthy to have the priesthood.”
As for homosexuals, Jeffs sermonized, “The people grew so evil, the men started to marry the men and the women married the women. This is the worst evil act you can do, next to murder. It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, then the Lord destroys them.”
“[The bigotry is] very well documented in Warren’s priesthood record and in his recorded sermons,” says Sam Brower, a private investigator, author and film producer who’s tracked FLDS activities for nearly 15 years. “Warren’s core people would never deviate from that.”
Jeffs’ power was enforced largely through his control of the land in Short Creek — the FLDS owned it all through a trust called the United Effort Plan, or UEP. “The UEP was an arm of the church, so people would be assigned houses and property,” explains John Dougherty, a veteran investigative journalist who reported on the FLDS in over 35 articles dating back to Warren Jeffs’ assumption of the priesthood in 2002. “If you remained in good standing with the church, you could keep the house.”
That was easier said than done for many Short Creek residents in the early-to-mid 2000s. “At that time, Jeffs ran the place with an iron fist,” Dougherty says, “and no one dared breach one of his rules or edicts or they faced being summarily tossed out of the church, which he did a number of times to leading figures in the community.”
As for elections, Jeffs would pick the candidates for Hildale and Colorado City public offices from among the FLDS faithful, who would then run unopposed.
Due to Jeffs’ racist, homophobic, misogynistic teachings, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the FLDS as a hate group in 2005.
But in 2005, the FLDS was under attack. The attorney general of Utah froze the UEP and seized its land holdings in Colorado City and Hildale, eventually placing the property in the control of a board of trustees. Some FLDS believers moved to a site near Eldorado, Texas, where a new temple was constructed, and many others left Short Creek in ensuing years for other FLDS enclaves around the western U.S., as well as Canada and Mexico.
Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to rape in 2007 in Utah, and later extradited to Texas where he was convicted of child sexual abuse after a raid on the Texas compound, and sentenced to life plus 20 years.
Still, Warren Jeffs remained as prophet to the FLDS faithful, and Short Creek remained politically in the grips of the church.
But as parcels were sold to private owners from the UEP land trust, and some FLDS members relocated to other communities, some non-FLDS members moved to the area and some former members who’d left or been kicked out of Short Creek, like Donia Jessop, returned.
“There are fewer active FLDS there,” Brower says, “but some of the most successful, prominent FLDS businesses are still in Hildale.”
“The leadership’s been locked up. They’ve basically lost control of the flock, so the flock may be dissipating,” Dougherty says.
Other FLDS leaders have been prosecuted and jailed, including Warren Jeffs’ brother and supposed successor Lyle, who was convicted of food stamp fraud late this year, and Orson William Black, who fled to Mexico after being charged with sex crimes in Arizona in 2003, but was arrested for triple homicide in Mexico recently and subsequently extradited back to the U.S. on the sex crime charges.
The shift in demographics in Short Creek led to the surprising election results in Hildale on the 7th of November, where Donia Jessop seems to have successfully challenged incumbent FLDS Mayor Philip Barlow, and three other non-FLDS or ex-FLDS candidates look to have won seats on the city council.
“Even people that leave the FLDS have been hesitant to be involved and start being masters of their own fate,” says Brower. “It takes a while to get your feet under you, and that’s what we’re starting to see now. They’re just starting to take control of their own destiny.”
But change is coming incrementally in Short Creek. Jessop says the community has “become much more diverse, and people just have more empathy and compassion towards each other as human beings, and this allows people to be who they are—a mainstream community. Everybody doesn’t think the same way or feel the same way anymore.”
Still, Brower says, “If somebody from out there was going to tell you their true feelings about LGBT [people] or other races, they’re at least smart enough now to temper their words. There would be a cultural bias towards all those things.”
And despite Jessop’s outsider status as an ex-FLDS member, her husband took a second wife after the family fled Short Creek, though she says she doesn’t identify with a particular religion. “I don’t have a religion at all, but I am a spiritual person. I believe in a higher power, there’s a higher source, but I don’t believe in any religion,” she says.
“The sad part is, [polygamy] is a felony in Utah, a felony in all 50 states, actually,” Brower says, “and [the election of a polygamist] is a step up for out there. Something like Donia’s [polygamist] arrangement, that would probably not fly in most of the country, but there it’s progress. It’s for sure better than the alternative, Philip Barlow, who’s under the thumb of the FLDS, taking his orders from a madman, a pedophile that’s doing a life sentence in a Texas prison.”
Dougherty concurs. “I think it’s a positive sign. Back to the beginning of the 20th century when folks moved there to begin with, the mindset they had then, and over 120 years, in the last 10 years we’re seeing some remarkable changes happening in this community. Shit like this doesn’t change overnight. It’s an incremental step moving forward to being a true American city where we welcome people from all different backgrounds and treat people equally.”