A fundamentalist religious sect that commands its women members to wear pioneer-era dresses and that became infamous for mass polygamy and child marriage appears to have had its power over a small town broken for the first time in its history.
Three non-fundamentalist council members are reported to have won against incumbents loyal to the sect “by a landslide” in Hildale, southern Utah, on Tuesday night.
And, in a closer race, an all-but-official majority of voters have chosen a new mayor, who also ran as an “outsider” to challenge the authority of the fringe religion over the isolated community.
Donia Jessop fully expects to be confirmed as the new mayor once a small number of outstanding postal ballots are counted in the next week. Her ascendence will be a potent symbol of a new era in the community.
“It’s a great leap, a revolution,” Jessop told the Guardian on Wednesday morning.
Majority control on the town council of Hildale is now set to transfer away from the outlaw church group known as the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which has controlled the town since they settled more than 100 years ago.
Hildale became the FLDS’s isolated enclave, on the remote Utah-Arizona border, after the group broke away from the mainstream Mormon church following that religion’s banning polygamy as a central tenet in the late 19th century.
The FLDS is led by the so-called prophet Warren Jeffs even though he is serving life in a Texas prison for taking child brides.
Since his 2011 conviction, many sect members have left and hundreds of ex-members and some non-members have moved to Hildale, bringing outside businesses, a lone public school and a more mainstream culture.
“The most important thing is that the wider world now understands that Hildale is changing,” said Jessop, who nevertheless lives unofficially but openly as a polygamist. At least one of the three other non-fundamentalist candidates tolerates polygamy, while rejecting the strict theocracy imposed by the FLDS, which dictates that the word of Jeffs is divine law.
Hildale has a population of fewer than 3,000 and just over 365 registered voters. “I’m ahead by 25 votes and I feel really good about the result. I’m pretty confident this will be confirmed,” she said.
It was a mail-in race and the town has until 14 November to count all the ballots. Jessop had expected a mayoral landslide over incumbent Philip Barlow, who is loyal to the FLDS.
“But a lot of ex-FLDS men who said they would vote for me didn’t; they voted for the man. The entire state of Utah is very patriarchal,” said Jessop.
The FLDS is a strict patriarchy and even some men who have left the religion expect obedience from their wives and also to arrange their daughters’ marriages.
“In Hildale it’s very ingrained. It’s bothersome. I stand my ground and tell men that they don’t have that right,” she said.
The idea of Hildale with a non-fundamentalist, female mayor in charge would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Even after Jeffs was jailed, he would send orders via his brother, Lyle. But now Lyle Jeffs is also in custody, awaiting trial accused of defrauding the federal food-stamp program.
“There is great uncertainty about who is in charge of the FLDS now,” said Elissa Wall. She moved back from Salt Lake City to Hildale in 2016, years after fleeing the religion in the middle of the night to escape the marriage Warren Jeffs had forced her into with one of her first cousins, at the age of 14.
Wall played a pivotal role in bringing Jeffs to justice by testifying against him in an early trial, even though his conviction then was later overturned on a technicality. It was several years before he was finally caught and convicted for later crimes.
After 10 years of campaigning, Wall recently won two lawsuits, against the FLDS, Warren Jeffs and a trust that controls church land, and moved back to Hildale, taking her two children and her e-commerce clothing business with her. She helped start a grassroots movement to register new, non-FLDS voters in the town and encourage a democratic election process with free and fair voting.
“We’ve worked really hard to get to know people and tell them their voice and their vote is powerful,” Wall told the Guardian. She went house to house getting people to register to vote.
Council incumbents, traditionally chosen by the church, found themselves with outside challengers for the first time in this election.
Philip Barlow, the soon-to-be-ex mayor, said he would go back to his car repair business full-time. He denied that the FLDS traditionally chooses council members but admitted that he had never had a challenger for his seat, despite being a Hildale official for more than 10 years, and that he was loyal to Warren Jeffs as prophet.
“It’s just another day in America,” he said of the election result.
Hildale’s adjoining town, Colorado City, on the Arizona side of the border and part of the same community dominated by the FLDS, will go to the polls in 2018.
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