Jonathan Nez, Bou Nigren advance Navajo presidency

Voters from the Navajo Nation will see familiar faces in the tribe’s general election: their current presidential and former vice presidential candidates, who both voted in 2018.

Presidents Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren garnered the most votes of 15 in Tuesday’s primary. Whoever wins will oversee the largest Native American reservation and the second-highest tribal population in the United States.

Both talked about the need for economic development and providing running water and electricity to thousands of Navajo people without it. Where they differ is in their approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Navajo Nation once had one of the highest infection rates in the United States. The Nez government instituted drastic measures to slow the spread. Movie theaters, restaurants, casinos and gyms have yet to fully open, and masks remain in place.

Nez is a veteran politician who has defended ways to keep people safe. He said he would bring continuity in a second term as the tribe struggles to spend more than $1 billion in federal virus relief funds, mostly on infrastructure.

“I think the Navajo people see that we can handle difficult situations,” Nez, 47, told The Associated Press. “Not just from the leadership, but to unite the Navajo people to take care of our people, and they’ve done a fantastic job.”

Nigren was former President Joe Shirley Jr.’s running mate in 2018. The pair lost to Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.

Nygren quit his job in construction management to seek the tribe’s top elected office, arguing that Navajo businesses were hurt by pandemic restrictions. He said the Navajo Nation has not been quick enough to deal with the huge loss of revenue from closed coal mines and coal-fired power plants and should take advantage of tourism. He has positioned himself as a diplomat who will bring a modern perspective to the presidency.

“It’s clear that the entire Navajo Nation needs new leadership,” the 35-year-old told The Associated Press. “Just the number of people who voted in the Navajo election where the floods happened, the roads were bad.”

According to unofficial results from the Tribal Elections Office, more than 47,501 Navajos voted in the tribe’s primary election — nearly 39 percent of the more than 123,000 registered voters. The tribe’s turnout is usually around 50 percent. Results will not be certified until after the challenge period.

According to unofficial results, Nez received more than 17,000 votes in the primary and Nigren received nearly 13,000 votes in all reported 110 constituencies. Rounding out the top five were attorney Justin Jones, former Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch and Dine University Board of Trustees chairman Greg Bigman, who collectively received nearly 14,000 votes.

The reservation spans more than 10 U.S. states and spans 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of high desert, forest, windswept mesas, and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

The shortlist of candidates agrees that more jobs are needed in reservations where unemployment hovers around 50%. Platforms pushed by candidates include finding ways to protect the Navajo language and urging the federal government to fulfill its responsibilities to provide public safety, health and education.

On Tuesday, supporters of the candidate set up tents across the Navajo Nation to provide voters with fried bread and other food as they conducted their final campaign. Election Day is a social event for the Navajo Nation, although some precautions remain in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes closing to the public the sports center in the tribal capital, Window Rock, where election results will be tallied.

The other candidates are educator Dolly Mason; scholar Leslie Tsosie; Chinle chapter president Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie Davis; former New Mexico congressman Sandra Jeff; Emily Ellison; Wajo Vice President Frank Dayish; Ts’ah Bii Kin Chapter Manager Earl Sombrero; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, both running for Tribal President in 2018.

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