Navajo Nation presidential hopefuls Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene announce running mates

Erny Zah
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The next vice president of the Navajo Nation will be from Shiprock, barring any surprises.

In two separate announcements on Tuesday, Navajo Nation presidential hopefuls Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene announced their vice presidential candidates, both of whom are from Shiprock.

Deschene announced his running mate as longtime Shiprock educator Fannie L. Atcitty, 62, in the early afternoon. A couple of hours later, Shirley announced he had chosen Dineh Benally, 37, who owns the Naa'taanii Baseball Academy and works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Deschene made his announcement from St. Michaels, Ariz., near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, during a press conference, while Shirley made his announcement from his campaign headquarters in Window Rock.

Navajo voters will select a new president on Nov. 4 in the general election.

Benally said he wants his candidacy to focus on youth issues. He said he plans to develop more programs to increase activities for young people, including new baseball and softball fields.

Atcitty said her top issue, if elected, would be the preservation of the Navajo language and culture. She said her experience as an educator would help her create projects to protect and teach Navajo values.

Atcitty said her education and experience qualifies her to be vice president. She has two master's degrees in educational leadership and curriculum and instruction from Doane College in Nebraska. She has a bachelor's degree in education from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

"I think it's not just the education piece, it's networking at the national level," she said.

About four years ago, Atcitty was part of a leadership squabble at Diné College. She was dismissed from the board of directors, only to be reinstated by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. Critics have said Atcitty instigated the controversy to oust then-college President Ferlin Clark.

"I would just say, you need to read the Supreme Court opinion, and that really explains itself," she said of the incident, which divided students, faculty and politicians.

Benally listed his love of the Navajo people and values among his qualifications to be vice president. He said he wants to develop the Navajo economy to help the people.

"I care for my people. I care a lot for my Navajo people. We are a sleeping giant," he said.

Critics of Shirley have voiced concerns that the two-time president's vice presidents are ignored and ineffective in office.

This is Shirley's third vice presidential selection. Benally is the second vice presidential candidate from Shiprock. Frank Dayish Jr., of Shiprock, served as Shirley's first vice president in the 2006 campaign. Dayish unsuccessfully ran for president in 2010. The current president, Ben Shelly, was Shirley's second vice president.

"For me, I attended New Mexico Military Academy. I know (how) to be a subordinate and support a leader. I'm going to work with him. Our plan is to be here for eight years," Benally said.

Both Atcitty and Benally said they plan to meet with their running mates to better define their roles in their prospective administrations.

Atcitty and Benally said geographical boundaries didn't play a part in their selections, although Shiprock is one of the largest chapters on the Navajo Nation.

In past Navajo elections, presidential candidates often found running mates from the state opposite of the one where they resided. For example, Shelly is from New Mexico, and he chose a vice president from Arizona, Rex Lee Jim.

Both Shirley and Deschene are from Arizona.

Benally said the president and vice president have to be inclusive of all Navajo people, regardless of where they live.

"You got to understand it doesn't matter what (community we come from), we're all Diné. We're all Navajo," he said.

Atcitty said Deschene told her she was chosen for the vice president role because of her experience, not because of where she is from.

"That might be the case for some, but Chris identified me with my leadership area," she said.

Erny Zah is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.