Jonathan Nez grew up surrounded by politics. His grandfather, H.T. Donald, represented the Shonto community on what is now the Navajo Nation Council.
“My grandfather was known for his generosity and compassion,” he told Northern Pioneer College, where he received his associates degree in political science. “I grew up with stories and people sharing with me how he helped the people. I felt I wanted to help out my community and, with guidance from my grandma, started from the bottom.”
Now he’s running for president of the Navajo Nation.
Nez and Joe Shirley were the two finalists in the primary election Tuesday. Nez received the most votes, more than 14,000, in his bid for the nation’s leader. Shirley earned just under 7,000 votes.
The results are not official yet. The tribe’s election office is still tabulating absentee and early voting ballots and results are supposed to made final within 10 days.
A third candidate was just behind Shirley, Tom Chee. He had been strong in a previous poll, but trailed Shirley by 530 votes.
The Diné Policy Institute surveyed people at a public forum in Shiprock, New Mexico, and found support for Chee. The survey predicted Nez would finish first, Chee come in second, and Shirley third. (A total of 463 survey forms were completed out of the 683 passed out in an unscientific poll.)
Yet that became a story. So across social media people where questioning the voting outcome.
One problem in this election was a purge of voters in February. In fact, more voter registrations were canceled than the number of people who voted. The Navajo Election Administration purged 52,425 voter registrations for not voting in either 2014 and 2016. The unofficial primary tally shows that 49,470 Navajo citizens voted. To put that in perspective: The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are 332,129 Navajo citizens. After the purge, the election administration said that there were 93,517 voter registrations.
Despite the statistics, Donovan Pete, Navajo, said he wasn’t caught off guard by the outcome.
“Initially, I was not too surprised, especially with the amount of outreach that both have done. They are both excellent at articulating their ideas and plans in both Diné Bizaad (Navajo) and English,” said the graphic and web designer in an email. “Although, Joe Shirley has a strong name, Jonathan Nez has certainly built his up, too, in order to become the candidate he has become.”
Pete has a point. Both candidates have extensive backgrounds in tribal politics and appeal to their supporters. But who are they?
Nez has three academic degrees under his belt. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is currently a doctoral student at the university and is an advocate for bringing young professionals back to the Navajo Nation. This fits his academic research, how to reduce central government and build stronger local governments.
The vice president worked his way into the job. He started out at the local leader at a Navajo c chapter, kind of city hall for rural communities on the very large Navajo Nation. There are 110 chapters on the reservation. Then Nez served on the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative branch of the government, for 12 years and at the same time, on the the Navajo County Board of Supervisors for two terms. On the Council, he was chairman of the budget and finance committee.
To say that Nez is an avid runner is an understatement. Earlier this year he ran -- and finished -- the Black Canyon Ultra. It’s a 100-kilometer marathon.
Scott Nydam, who ran that same race, reflected on the experience on Instagram. He said the vice president listened to his ideas about youth bicycle programs. Nez told Nydam that his previous 300-pound stature led him to making a healthier change for himself and he became an advocate for a healthier lifestyle.
Nydam’s post continues with Nez saying, “‘I would visit schools, telling kids they needed to set goals, meet them, then set new ones. So, I had to do it myself, [pause] or no one was gonna listen to me.’ As he charged the last 15 miles (faster than the first 10 miles we did before it), I asked, ‘Do you like being Vice President?’ ‘Yes,’ he quickly responded, ‘There are so many inspiring stories out there!’ We ran another while longer and I said, ‘This is one of them.’”
Shirley starts this election campaign with a lot of history.
This is his second attempt at a third-term presidency. He ran in 2014 against Chris Deschene, who was taken off the ballot by officials a week before the general election. Election officials raised concerns about Deschene’s fluency in Navajo. So the Election Board placed Russell Begaye on the ballot -- and he won. In this week’s primary, Begaye took 5th place with 3,883 votes.
Shirley was the first president to be re-elected since the position was established in 1989. He was Navajo Nation president from January 2003 to January 2011.
Now, as he runs for a third term, his response to his name being on the ballot for a fourth time, yes, “The people have spoken.”
People responded to Shirley’s win on social media saying by he is an articulate speaker. “Joe Shirley, Jr. can talk good.” Another wrote, “He even addressed his respect against his opponent.” The Daily Times took a photograph of him hugging Nez in the Window Rock Sports Center.
Just like Nez, Shirley brings experience and education to the table. He graduated from Magic Valley Christian College in Idaho, where he received a business degree from Abilene Christian University in Texas, and then obtained a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University.
Some wondered how Shirley was able to run in the first place. In 2010, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruled that Shirley could run for a third term because the law “limits the President to two consecutive terms, and is not a lifetime limit on persons seeking that office.” So as long as he took one term off, he could run again.
One Facebook user pointed out Shirley’s administrative leave during his presidency. The Navajo Nation Council tried to place the president on leave because it questioned business deals that cost the tribe millions of dollars. The court said the council didn’t have authority to order a presidential leave.
Shirley is a Chinle resident who frequently brings in the importance of cultural connection and family relationships while on the campaign trail. This is his fourth campaign for presidency and makes sure “the people” know it.
A key question in this campaign is how each of the candidates will address the planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine.
As vice president, Nez helped Begaye extend the lease in 2017 for the power plant in Page, Arizona. It is set to close in December 2019. In an interview with NBC, Begaye said he hopes to turn the Navajo Nation away from natural resource dependency.
During the Shiprock forum, Nez was asked how will he protect the environment and keep the natural resources on the land from being exploited. “There’s an issue of climate change and global warming,” he said on Facebook. “Today, many of us don’t understand that the foods we eat contribute to global warming.” Nez said big farming and ranching take away the land, but contribute to the global emissions that compound the greenhouse effect.
According to Shirley’s website, he says his administration will transition to “more clean energy projects,” such as additional solar and wind farms. This message ties into his campaign’s theme of job creation.
Shirley seems to have shifted his views. During his presidency, he supported the Desert Rock Power Plant in northern New Mexico. He told the New York Times in 2007 that he understood the pressure coming from environmentalists and yet the nation needed jobs. The plant closed in 2009.
Shirley ticks off his list of what was accomplished while he was in office. He passed the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 that bans all uranium mining on the nation. While as president, he authorized the San Juan River Water Settlement. That settlement quantified water rights for the Navajo Nation and it included water for homes on the nation, the city of Gallup, and the Jicarilla Apache Nation. The settlement continues to be challenged for a variety of reasons.
Moroni Benally, a 2014 presidential candidate reacted to the results in a Facebook post. “Both Vice President Nez and Mr. Shirley have had opportunities to show their strength and conviction. I have no doubt each of them has a love of Navajo, but is that sufficient to lead the Navajo people to liberation?” he wrote. “If there is a time for a leader to stand up for the future of our people with righteous indignation it is now.”
Both Nez and Shirley promise to tackle similar issues. The candidates say they want to change laws to create more business which will lead to more jobs. Both say they see the importance of bringing back educated youth to work for the nation. Protecting the language is always key and is included in their campaigns as well as addressing the needs of veterans.
Both candidates want to find ways to continue to benefit from extractive, natural resources near the San Juan River. That river was contaminated by the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015. Both candidates say it is okay to use the “cleaned up” water for livestock and food. Some community members started using the river again, but others say it’s still unsafe.
Benally says on Facebook that this thinking is all part of “the status quo” and “the leaders will sell you and me on the status quo.”
“We do not need leaders who campaign on what we want; we need leaders who will tell us what we need, no matter how uncomfortable, difficult, and hard it may be to hear, and endure. We need a leader who is willing to speak to our needs and risk losing the next election and the support of the people for it,” Benally said. “Sometimes doing right is not always popular with the people. It is time we have a leader who is willing to speak about Navajo liberation and not perform the colonial puppet.”
Voter registration for the general election reopens on September 10. The last day to register is October 8. To register a citizen must be 18 years old show a Certificate of Indian Blood, a driver’s license or Navajo Nation ID, and a social security card. Voters can register at their local chapters or at one of the five Navajo Nation Election Offices.
The in-person voting will take place on November 6.
(Disclosure: The reporter is not related to Russell Begaye.)