Navajo Nation voters will see familiar faces in the tribe’s general election: their current president and a former vice presidential candidate, both of whom were on the ballot in 2018.
Speaker Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren received the most votes in Tuesday’s primary among a field of 15. Whoever wins will oversee the largest Native American reservation in the US and the second-highest tribal population.
Both have spoken of the need for economic development and extending running water and electricity to the thousands of Navajo without it. Where they differ is the approach to the transition to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Navajo Nation once had one of the highest infection rates in the United States. The Nez administration took drastic measures to slow the spread. Movie theaters, restaurants, casinos and gyms are not yet fully open and the mask mandate remains.
Nez, a veteran politician, has defended the approach to protect people. He said he would bring continuity to a second term as the tribe works to spend more than $1 billion in federal virus relief funding that will largely go to infrastructure.
“I think the Navajo people saw that we are capable of handling a difficult situation,” Nez, 47, told The Associated Press. “Not just coming from leadership, but to rally the Navajo people to take care of our people, and they did a great job.”
Nygren was former President Joe Shirley Jr.’s running mate. in 2018. The two lost to Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.
Nygren left his job in construction management to seek the tribe’s top elected position and argues that Navajo businesses are being hurt by the pandemic restrictions. He said the Navajo Nation has not been quick enough to respond to a huge loss of revenue from closed coal mines and coal-fired power plants and should tap into tourism. He has positioned himself as a diplomat who will bring a modern perspective to the presidency.
“It’s very clear that new leadership is being sought throughout the Navajo Nation,” the 35-year-old told The Associated Press. “As far as the number of people who came out to vote in Navajo elections where there was flooding, the roads were terrible.”
More than 47,501 Navajos cast ballots in the tribal primary — nearly 39 percent among more than 123,000 registered voters, according to unofficial results from the tribe’s elections office. The tribe generally sees a participation of around 50%. Results will not be certified until after a challenge period.
Nez garnered more than 17,000 votes in the primary and Nygren took nearly 13,000 with all 110 precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. Rounding out the top five were attorney Justin Jones, former Navajo Attorney General Ethel Bunce and Greg Bigman, chair of the Diné College Board of Regents, who collectively received nearly 14,000 votes.
The reservation is larger than 10 US states and spans 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of high desert, forest, windswept midlands, and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The list of candidates agreed that more jobs are needed on the reservation where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. The candidates pushed platforms that included finding ways to preserve the Navajo language and pressuring the federal government to fulfill its duty to provide public safety, health and education.
Supporters of the candidates set up tents across the Navajo Nation on Tuesday, offering fry bread and other food to voters as they did the final campaigning. Election Day is a social event in the Navajo Nation, although some precautions were still in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. This included closing to the public the sports center in the tribal capital of Window Rock, where election results are recorded.
The other candidates were educator Dolly Mason; scholar Leslie Tsosie; Chinle Chapter President Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie Davis? former New Mexico state legislator Sandra Jeff; Emily Ellison? Former Navajo Vice President Frank Deis. Ts’ah Bii Kin Head of Chapter Earl Sombrero; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, who both sought the tribe’s chairmanship in 2018.