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Election stew starting to simmer

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 24, 2013

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Ayear from now, the Navajo Nation will be in the final stages of the race to see who will become the next Navajo Nation President.

And traditionally, by this time, Navajo voters have a good idea of who will be the frontrunners in the race because some of the candidates would have been out there for months trying to gather support.

Joe Shirley, who served for eight years as tribal president, and who has made no effort to quiet his supporters who want him to run for a third term, is spending more and more of his time speaking to chapters and groups.

Since leaving office, he has been serving as an Apache County supervisor, a position he held before he became president some 11 years ago.

In 2010, after ending his eight years in office, Shirley's supporters pushed for him to run again but he was disqualified because of the two-term limit placed on the presidency passed by the Navajo Nation Council in 1990.

The law, however, doesn't stop him from running again after a four-year layover.

If he runs, with his record, he should have no problem making it to the general election.

The tribe's current president, Ben Shelly, has also made it known unofficially that he wants a second term.

Shelly is in somewhat of a strange position.

While he is from the Eastern Navajo Agency, a lot of his support in the last election came from voters in Arizona (Lynda Lovejoy, who is also from the Eastern Navajo Agency, took a lot of her support from New Mexico Navajos).

If he runs - and no one right now is saying he won't - he will have to fight Shirley, who hails from Chinle, for that Arizona support and he's probably going to lose since Arizona went heavily for Shirley in both of his two victories.

This means that Shelly will have to rely on the Eastern chapters if he wants a chance to get in the general election and he will have to campaign heavily in those chapters to get back that support.

Traditionally, eastern chapters have gotten behind one of their own but because the two general election candidates last time were from the eastern portion, their loyalty was divided and Shelly will have to work hard to get that support back.

He has found that being president is a two-edged sword.

On one hand, the incumbent gets support from tribal members who like to see the status quo maintained.

On the other hand, he has made a number of decisions that have angered people who formerly supported him, and this is going to hurt his re-election bid.

Kenneth Maryboy, who now represents the Utah chapters on the Navajo Council, has already made his public announcement that he is running and has billboards up.

A couple of decades ago, his brother, Mark Maryboy, was being viewed as a strong candidate for the presidency but he realized that his presidency changes were hampered by one thing - his residency.

This is the same problem that his brother faces.

Only five percent of the Navajo population is registered in Utah.

While this is not a hard-and-fast rule, many Navajo voters seem to have a tendency to vote for someone from their own state, in part because a lot of the problems facing Arizona Navajos are different from the ones facing New Mexico Navajos (I have also heard Navajos from time to time say that they can tell an Arizona Navajo from a New Mexico Navajo because they pronounce certain Navajo words differently).

That's part of the reason why most of the tribal leaders (chairmen or presidents) have come from Arizona, which has a larger percentage of the Navajo population than New Mexico.

So, if Maryboy wants to have a chance to win, he's going to have to buck the trend and convince Navajo voters in Arizona and New Mexico that he understands their problems.

That may be easier today then it was 20 years ago as more and more young Navajos move off the reservation and live in major cities.

They probably are not as affected by the state bias as their parents were, and if the young Navajo voters come out in larger numbers than it has in previous elections, he may stand a chance, especially if he campaigns as an outsider and starts pushing for programs to benefit urban Navajos, such as urban chapters and an urban Navajo office to address their issues.

Another name that has come up in recent months is Edison Wauneka, the head of the tribe's election office.

He's a long-shot since he comes into the race without a base (most previous chairmen and presidential winners have had a base to count on before the race ever started).

But there is probably no one in the race who has spent more time studying the Navajo voter and if he can pinpoint the issues in this campaign and figure out what the Navajo voters want, he just may be that candidate.

This is only the first wave.

If this coming election is like the others, there will be at least five and maybe as many as eight or nine other candidates who will throw their hats in the ring in the next few months.

Most of these will have no chance because if past tribal elections have proven anything, it is that it takes time and money to get your name known to the Navajo voter.

Announcing in January or February and then spending all your time visiting chapters or speaking at get-togethers is frustrating, time-consuming and ends up with very few votes.

Some candidates have tried to get around this by mounting an aggressive radio campaign (television campaigning is still years in the future), but this takes a lot of money -- tens of thousands of dollars -- and you don't get that type of financing unless you are a frontrunner.

But I don't think a lot of these candidates actually expected to win.

Some just wanted to be able to say to their grandchildren that they ran for tribal president and others may have been hoping to be picked by one of the general election candidates as their running mate.

A couple of other names that come up are people who are well known in Navajo circles -- Lynda Lovejoy and Peterson Zah.

Lovejoy lost the last two elections, either because she is a woman and traditional Navajos will not vote for a woman for that high office, or because she lost votes by some ill-advised statements she made during the campaign.

There appears to be a certain segment of the Navajo voting population that would still like to see a woman elected to the top position, but Lovejoy has been there twice and spent a lot of her energy and money only to see her attempts fail.

So right now it seems likely that she will run for another position next year -- maybe for the Public Regulation Commission -- and will bypass the tribal election altogether.

As for Zah, there are a lot of elderly Navajo voters who remember him with fondness and who would vote for him.

Would it be enough to get him into the general election?

Who knows, but remember that long after his political career was pronounced dead, Raymond Nakai ran for tribal chairman and managed to gather enough support to get into the general election.

Zah has been the type of candidate whose name has come up in every election for the past 20 years and he has to spend a lot of his time during the election season explaining to people why he won't be a candidate.

I expect that will be his role in this election as well.

And finally, one other tradition that has been present in almost every election for chairman and president in the past 40 years has been the so-called traitor candidate.

This is the candidate who once was the BFF of the tribal chairman or tribal president with his picture there on the winning campaign poster and promising to be by his side throughout his administration.

That usually only lasted a year or two and by the third year, the two would be barely talking and Number Two would begin plotting on how he would be Number One after the next election.

This happened to both of Shirley's running mates but there have been no signs of any discord between Shelly and his vice-president, Rex Lee Jim.

In fact, when Jim was asked about why he was breaking with Navajo tradition and was actually continuing to support the man he ran with, he gave a speech about the importance of loyalty and could he expect loyalty from those he would work with if he didn't give it to the man who chose him as his running mate?

A nice speech, but Navajo voters have come to expect that their vice presidents be a little more conniving and back-stabbing.

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