Jonathan Nez, Buu Nygren Advance for Navajo Presidency

By FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo Nation voters will see some familiar faces in the tribe’s general election: their current president and a former running mate, both of whom were on the ballot in 2018.

President Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren garnered the most votes in Tuesday’s primary from a field of 15. The winner will oversee the largest Native American reservation in the United States and the second-highest tribal population.

Both spoke of the need for economic development and the extension of running water and electricity to the thousands of Navajo who lack it. Where they differ is on the approach to getting through the coronavirus pandemic.

The Navajo Nation once had one of the highest infection rates in the United States. Nez’s administration has taken tough measures to slow the spread. Cinemas, restaurants, casinos and gyms are still not yet fully open, and a mask mandate remains.

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Nez, a seasoned politician, championed the approach of keeping people safe. He said he would bring continuity into a second term, as the tribe strives to spend more than $1 billion in federal virus relief funding that would largely be for infrastructure.

“I think the Navajo people have seen that we are capable of handling a difficult situation, Nez, 47, told The Associated Press. “Not just coming from management, but rallying the Navajo people to take care of our people, and they’ve done an amazing job.”

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

Nygren quit his job in construction management to seek the tribe’s top job and says Navajo businesses are suffering because of pandemic restrictions. He said the Navajo Nation has not been quick enough to respond to a huge loss of revenue from closed coal mines and coal-fired power plants and should capitalize on tourism. He has positioned himself as a diplomat who will bring a modern perspective to the presidency.

“It’s very clear that new leadership is being sought throughout the Navajo Nation,” the 35-year-old told The Associated Press. “Just the number of people who came out to vote in a Navajo election where flooding was happening, the roads were terrible.”

Nearly 48,000 Navajo voted in the tribe’s primary elections, a turnout of nearly 39 percent among more than 123,000 registered voters, according to unofficial results from the tribe’s election office. The tribe typically sees a turnout of around 50%. The results still need to be certified.

Nez garnered 17,073 votes in the primary election and Nygren won 12,878 votes with the 110 reported precincts, according to unofficial results. They will choose their own running mates for the general election in the non-partisan race.

Rounding out the top five are attorney Justin Jones, former Navajo attorney general Ethel Branch and Diné College Board of Regents chairman Greg Bigman, who collectively received nearly 14,000 votes.

Navajo voters also narrowed the slate of candidates for seats on the 24-member Navajo Nation Council, ousting fewer than a handful of incumbents. The current Chairman of the Council, Seth Damon, is the only one to have presented himself without opposition.

The reservation is larger than 10 US states, covering 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of high desert, forests, windswept mesas and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona and Utah . Its population of 406,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

The slate of candidates agreed that more jobs were needed on the reservation where unemployment hovers around 50%. The candidates pushed platforms that included finding ways to preserve the Navajo language and pressuring the federal government to fulfill its duty to provide public safety, health and education.

Supporters of the candidates set up tents across the Navajo Nation on Tuesday, offering fried bread and other food to voters as they made a last ditch campaign effort. Election Day is a social event in the Navajo Nation, although some precautions were still in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. This included closing to the public the athletic center in the tribal capital of Window Rock where election results are tallied.

The other candidates were educator Dolly Mason; academic Leslie Tsosie; Chinle Chapter President Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie Davis; former New Mexico State Legislator Sandra Jeff; Emily Ellison; former Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish; Earl Sombrero, director of the Ts’ah Bii Kin chapter; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, who both sought the Tribal Presidency in 2018.

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