NORTH OGDEN — City council races in Weber County are typically staid affairs, characterized by yard signs, a candidate forum or two and back-and-forth on things like development, government transparency and zoning.
The North Ogden City Council contest, though — the candidacy of Gregory Smith, more specifically — took a twist earlier this week into the twittersphere, atypical terrain in the city’s electoral battles. And the acrimonious online debate, spurred in part by a Tweet from Smith introducing his campaign team, swerved into topics that don’t usually get attention in local races — the loosely defined #DezNat movement, white nationalism and more.
The use by Smith and two of his campaign workers of the #DezNat hashtag in their Twitter bios seems to have been the spur for some who dove into the debate, including Katie Matheson. Backers say DezNat, short for Deseret Nation, is a term used in defending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from critics. Others, though, say #DezNat has more sinister connotations and link it to white nationalism, homophobia and more based in part on the backgrounds of some of those who use the hashtag.
“It just set off alarm bells in my head and I thought, ‘Folks need to know,’” said Matheson. She’s communications director for Alliance for a Better Utah, a nonprofit group that “advocates for progressive policies,” but says she launched into the Twitter debate as a concerned citizen, independent of her position with the group.
“(J)ust flagging that a candidate for North Ogden city council has two folks on his campaign who have the alt-right white nationalist hashtag in their bios,” she tweeted last Tuesday. What resulted were a flurry of tweets offering varied views of what #DezNat means, expressions of alarm by some over Smith’s candidacy and attacks on Matheson.
Smith, one of seven candidates for two North Ogden City Council spots, offered up a subsequent series of tweets responding to the uproar and defending himself. In talking to the Standard-Examiner, he expressed exasperation over the turn of events and rejected any suggestion of nefarious intentions by using the #DezNat hashtag. He’s a member of the LDS church and said he uses the hashtag when defending it in social media posts. He says people of color use the #DezNat hashtag, dismissing suggestions that racist sentiments underlie it.
“I’ve only ever used the hashtag when something’s critical of the church and I’m saying something positive about the church,” Smith said. “I defend my religion online.”
He’s not running for the city post on an LDS platform, “as a defender of the church,” he said. And he’s not a white supremacist, an adherent of the fringe right or a hater of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, he says. Rather, he describes himself as “moderate” and says issues of concern include scarcity of water and development in the growing city, among other things.
Whatever the case, his candidacy sparked intense, sharp-elbowed debate and finger pointing online, at least among some, and on issues that extend beyond the usual fodder in a city campaign, notably about what exactly #DezNat signifies. Given the hashtag’s mixed meaning from person to person, Matheson wonders why Smith — operator of a mobile bike shop — would use it in the first place.
Beyond the scrutiny Smith has faced, he laments that one of his campaign assistants, in particular, has come under fire from online critics for using the #DezNat hashtag. “I know him; he’s a good guy,” he said.
But at least the furor seems to be dissipating. “I think it’s died down a bit,” he said Friday.