Navajo-President Race - NM senator, Navajo VP vie for tribal presidency

By Felicia Fonseca
Window Rock, Arizona (AP) October 2010

In the Navajo clan system, Lynda Lovejoy and Ben Shelly are relatives. In the political world, they are rivals.

Each is hoping to become the next leader of the country’s largest American Indian reservation - Lovejoy as the first female president and Shelly as the only tribal vice president elected to the top job.

Their promises to voters don’t differ much from previous elections. Both want to lower the tribe’s more than 50 percent unemployment rate, ensure Navajos have a voice in their government and make education more culturally relevant.

Shelly contends he’s better suited for the position because of his work as vice president and a tribal lawmaker. He says Lovejoy has been too immersed in New Mexico state government to know what Navajos need and “just pops up” every four years - a reference to her run against current tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. in 2006.

“She needs to be around here, I believe that’s how you get the leadership role,” he said. “Be among the people, not to be afraid of them.”

Lovejoy says she can’t control such judgments and contends Navajos need someone who will bring a fresh perspective to governing. To choose Shelly is “going to be down that path of same old, same old,” she says.

“I’ve been down in the trenches with some of the most highly recognized leaders at our state level,” said Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator. “Very smart people who come and roll up their sleeves and are doers. That’s what I’m accustomed to.”

Lovejoy received more than twice as many voters as any of the other 11 candidates in the August primary election. Shelly came in second and has the endorsement of other primary candidates.

Shelly said he was surprised by Lovejoy’s numbers and chalked up his second-place finish in the primary to not enough campaigning, to being outspent, and to voters who’d become angry with the infighting among tribal leaders.

“I know we will do real good this time,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of support.”

Shelly advocates returning the tribal government to a chairmanship where the elected leader would preside over the Tribal Council, but says he’s also open to creating a tribal constitution. He says an 88-member council, which he was a part of for 16 years, has hindered job creation for the tribe. Navajos will elect only 24 lawmakers this year, the result of a December election.

The council reduction that Shirley pitched as government reform fueled a feud between him and the Tribal Council. The tribe’s high court ultimately ruled it was valid.

Lovejoy said any talks about further reforming the government have to coincide with “getting our house in order” and ensuring that Navajos have basic needs, such as running water, electricity and better roads.

“What is more important is how do we structure our governance system right now where we can address the long-standing issues that have kept our people in 18th-century circumstances,” she said.

Regardless of who wins on Nov. 2 - Navajos will see the first leader from the New Mexico side of the reservation in nearly 70 years. Shelly chose Navajo lawmaker Rex Lee Jim as his running mate, while Lovejoy picked environmental activist Earl Tulley.

Shirley had sought a third term in office, but the tribe’s high court ruled he was rightfully term-limited. Some Navajos believe an endorsement from Shirley could sway the vote

A spokesman for the president said he was unsure whether Shirley would make an endorsement.