N.M. redistricting fight comes to Navajo Nation

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Dec. 1, 2011

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State Rep. Ray Begaye, who has represented District 4 in northwest New Mexico since 1999, accuses a Republican cabal inside the Navajo Nation leadership of trying to turn back the clock and dilute the strength of Native American voters in his district in the fight over redistricting now before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

But one of those he says is involved categorically denies the charge and explains that population changes made it necessary to reduce the percentage of Native Americans in those districts to strengthen Navajo representation in other districts overlapping Navajo land.

"With due respect to Mr. Begaye, he is paranoid," said Leonard Tsosie, who represents Baca-Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake on the Navajo Nation Council.

He also is on the Navajo Nation Redistricting Subcommittee appointed by Speaker Johnny Naize.

"We had to unpack the northern district to help out with the districts south of Rep. Begaye and Sen. Pinto's district," said Tsosie, referring to State Sen. John Pinto, D-Tohatchi.

"(Begaye's) district was packed," he said, "it was like 80 percent Navajo and so was Senator Pinto's. If you look at the Navajo Nation and look at both their northern districts we brought it back to where we could use some of those numbers to help out with the southern district.

"There was absolutely no Republican input into the Navajo Nation plan," Tsosie emphasized.

Political districts are redrawn every 10 years after a new U.S. Census is done. Since the last redistricting fight in New Mexico following the 2000 census, it has been law to maintain at least 65 percent Native American majorities in districts that represent Native populations.

The requirement is the result of a hard-won legal battle in 2002 led by Indian law/voting rights attorney Teresa Leger de Fernandez, who cited previous decisions under the federal Voting Rights Act that had protected the representation of minorities elsewhere in the U.S.

"In 2002, the New Mexico District Court ruled that a voting age population of 55 percent 'does not provide Native Americans with a reasonable opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,'" stated a recent filing by the Native American Redistricting Work Group in its "Consensus Plan."

Now that the 2010 Census is completed, a new round of redistricting fights has been going on across the country. Nine percent of New Mexico's population is Native American - nearly one in 10 - but there are only five Native legislators out of the total 112 House and Senate members.

The Consensus Plan attempts to address that imbalance and was adopted by tribal leaders Aug. 29, 2011, from numerous meetings of the pueblos and Navajo and Jicarilla Apache contingents. It was then submitted to Gov. Susana Martinez, who rejected it.

According to Tsosie, his group was asked by the pueblos in the work group to address their concerns in the Grants, N.M., area. He said his group respected their wishes, and worked primarily on State Senate District 30, "because the pueblos there in the Grants area felt that Sen. (David) Ulibarri has been working against pueblo interests by promoting mining in Mount Taylor.

As for the northeastern part of the Navajo Nation, that was left up to Tsosie's group, and he said, "The Navajo Nation was building its own plan with respect to districts 4, 6, and 22 in the predominately Navajo area."

Devil in the works

Because Martinez rejected the Consensus Plan, along with other Democrat-backed redistricting plans, it is ending up in court.

The hearing on redistricting is set to begin Monday, Dec. 5, in Santa Fe before District Judge James Hall. The Navajo Nation plan will be represented by the Albuquerque law firm of Williams and Williams and the Concensus Plan will be represented by Leger for the Native American Redistricting Work Group.

But Rep. Begaye contends that an alternative Republican-concocted plan, that he said had already been rejected by state legislators, has been introduced to the state redistricting committee and labeled as "the Navajo Nation plan."

According to Begaye, Tsosie is the sponsor.

"Leonard Tsosie's plan was turned into the Navajo Nation's plan and submitted" to the state redistricting committee, Begaye states. "The Tsosie redistricting agenda may be placed on the Navajo Nation Council agenda."

Begaye said he doesn't know exactly when this would occur, but added, "I saw the proposed district map, and I have alerted some of the Council members."

As soon as he saw the plan that had been proposed in Santa Fe, which would remove his stronghold of Sanostee, N.M., and move it to another district, he saw that "the devil was in the works," he said.

Begaye charges that "this agenda is that of Leonard Tsosie, Republican demographer Sen. Rod Adair, San Juan County Republican Party, Ben Shelly, and others."

Tsosie said he is a Democrat and Shelly is a Democrat. And he said he can guarantee that Rod Adair, R-Roswell, and the Republicans had nothing to do with his plan. He said the Navajo Nation plan will not come before the Council, because it has already been approved as authorized by his committee.

"It's already been adopted by the Council through the Nabik'yati gave the authorization to the group by majority vote to (the subcommittee to make the plan and) consider alternatives," he said.

President Ben Shelly said, "Our stance for redistricting in the entire Navajo Nation, including Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, is in line with what the Navajo Nation Council and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission recommends.

"We plan to continue working with Representative Begaye in matters that concern the people of the Four Corners area," he added.

"It's a political move that needs to be opposed," Begaye said, explaining that their plan adds more white, typically Mormon, Republican precincts to his district, diluting the Navajo vote.

Despite an increase in Native residents noted by the Census, Begaye said the "Tsosie agenda" would actually reduce the percentage of Native voters in his district from 81.12 to 72 percent.

To the contrary, said Tsosie, the Census showed a decline of between 11 to 13 percent in the rate of growth in that district.

"The population numbers went down in the northwest area," he said. "It's just not in Begay's area, it's all over. All the way down to Gallup. And we had to work with those numbers and we had to unpack Representative Begaye's district and move it further south to help out with the southern district.

"You take some of those Native American numbers and attach it to the southern part (of the Navajo Nation) so you would have a higher voting population (overall)," he said.

Begaye claims the changes also "craftily" reduce the pool of Democratic voters in his district 48 percent, thus threatening his chances of re-election, he said.

Under the Native American Redistricting Work Group plan, Begaye's district would retain a 68-28 percent mix of Democrat-leaning versus Republican voters.

Tsosie: All must benefit

Begaye was particularly incensed that Tsosie's plan "would take Sanostee, my stronghold, where a lot of my relatives come from," and put it District 9, currently represented by Democrat Patty Lundstrom of Gallup. "That's when I saw the devil was in the works."

Tsosie said about Begaye's charge, "That was not our concern - our concern was that we wanted it to be a high Native American population. And that's what we got. I can categorically say that there was no Republican influence and I can guarantee that Rod Adair had no input into the Navajo Nation plan. We adopted it at Fruitland. I call it 'the Fruitland plan.'"

About the removal of Sanostee from Begaye's district, Tsosie said, "I'm sorry but Representative Begaye was not cooperative with us. He never wrote a letter to us saying these are his concerns, where his family members are. He did not communicate that to us...I went to Santa Fe many times and to the interim sessions."

Begaye said the state's Republican Party already has "their dream plan before the Supreme Court," and further that it is trying to present a plan to the court that would appear to be endorsed by the Navajo Nation.

The Native American Redistricting Work Group plan was worked out with representation from the 19 pueblos, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the Navajo Nation, was approved by both the New Mexico House and Senate, and was also "supported by (a) 3-2 vote by the Navajo Nation Redistricting Subcommittee appointed by Speaker Johnny Naize," Begaye said.

To submit a different plan to the court would be like the Navajo Nation trying to act as a separate legislator creating its own district in New Mexico, which he says would open a Pandora's box across the country "from Tacoma, Washington, to Alaska, to Tennessee, to Louisiana, to use the same argument."

He says that the attorney for the Work Group's plan will argue that there was no Navajo Nation plan before the judge.

Tsosie sees it differently. As for introducing the Navajo Nation/Fruitland plan at this point, he says "There's no law against it. We are his constituents. What Representative Begaye is trying to do is preserve himself. We were not into that.

"We were worried about the representation of Navajo people and we wanted numbers that allowed Navajo people to elect a candidate of their choice - that's what we're doing," he said. "Representative Begaye wanted to enjoy a district higher than 80 percent Native American, and we could not give that to him."

Begaye says he is the district's voice in the New Mexico Legislature for Navajo initiatives.

"If we had a Republican in District 4, all hell would break loose on Indian initiatives and Navajo initiatives would not even go through the legislative process at all," he said.

He characterized Republicans as wanting to grant "lesser power to Native American communities. My battles are usually with the Republicans" when it comes to Native interests.

Tsosie counters, "Begaye is only interested in self-preservation. What we are trying to do as Navajo leaders is to look at the voting rights of Navajo people and see how we can design those plans to give Navajo people a chance to elect a candidate of their choice."

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