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Seasoned politicians face off in Navajo presidential race

Posted at 12:06 PM, Oct 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-28 15:06:29-04

On the vast Navajo Nation, the needs are many: more police officers and better pay, housing, social services, roads and water.

With the expected closure of a coal-fired power plant and mine on the reservation next year, financial resources will dwindle. The task of replacing roughly one-third of the tribe's revenue will fall heavily on whoever Navajos choose to be their next president in the Nov. 6 election.
The contenders are Jonathan Nez and Joe Shirley Jr. Both have spent years in politics as county supervisors, tribal lawmakers and in the tribe's leadership - Nez as the current vice president and Shirley as a former two-term president.
At a recent presidential forum at Arizona State University, they expressed similar priorities. The race is nonpartisan; both men are Democrats.
Topics of discussion included bringing young, educated Navajos home to the reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, preserving the Navajo way of life and how to retain teachers. They talked about enticing businesses by reforming tribal laws and putting needed infrastructure in place. They also discussed being inclusive and the value of teamwork in governing.
Both also worry about the hundreds of jobs that will be lost when the Navajo Generating Station in Page, near the Arizona-Utah border, and its feed mine in Kayenta close at the end of 2019. The tribe was negotiating with a potential buyer, but talks fell through. A major hurdle was finding someone to commit to buying the power as nearby states distance themselves from coal.
Outgoing tribal President Russell Begaye, who did not advance beyond the primary, told lawmakers this month that his administration tightened its budget and was looking for ways to diversify the economy to rely less on coal.
If elected, Shirley said he would do whatever he can to extend the life of the power plant to save coal revenue and jobs.
"These jobs not only support the immediate families, but we have kinship," Shirley, 70, said. "And, in many cases, it supports extended families, too."
Nez, 43, said the focus should be on how to transition from coal plants to renewable energy. But he also wondered whether the tribe could build a rail line to export the abundant coal off the reservation.
"How do we get that coal out to those that are in need?" he asked.
More than 98,000 Navajos are registered to vote. Since the presidential candidates are both seasoned politicians and have similar priorities, the deciding factor for voters could be their character and how they approach governing.
Shirley, dressed in dark jeans and cowboy boots with a turquoise necklace, was more pointed in his answers at the forum. That speaks to his experience as president and his ability to get things done, his campaign says. Shirley chose Buu Van Nygren, an operations trainer for a national construction company, as his running mate.
Nez, dressed in a suit and tie, led into his answers and looked to the audience for affirmation. His campaign says that points to his experience as a community leader building consensus. On the ticket with Nez is Myron Lizer, who oversees Ace Hardware stores on the reservation.
Navajo voter Joseph Hernandez isn't sure yet who he will support.
He said he will be attending the candidates' rallies and youth council meetings before the election and talking to trusted elders in his community of Gadii'ahi/To'koi, northwest of Shiprock, New Mexico.
"Really pay attention to what they have to talk about current issues, not about what's been done in the past," the 31-year-old said. "What's currently happening and what they feel needs to be done is really going to be the deciding factor."