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Begaye, Nez win Navajo presidency

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Shiprock resident Russell Begaye and Shonto resident Jonathan Nez claimed the title of president and vice president during Tuesday's Navajo Nation special election.

The unofficial results show Begaye and Nez received 25,745 votes, while Joe Shirley Jr. and his running mate, Dineh Benally, received 15,439 votes.

Begaye and Nez led throughout the evening, and cheers greeted the two men when they walked into the Window Rock Sports Center Tuesday night. They were surrounded by supporters who waved campaign signs and earlier in the evening shouted, "Russell Begaye! Russell Begaye!"

After taking the stage to address the crowd, Begaye said the special election created a focus on the tribe's election laws.

"We now know that we have a system that is broken and needs to be fixed," Begaye said, adding that his administration will work to amend the system.

After months of legal challenges and court decisions, Navajo voters cast their ballots to select a tribal president and fill six vacancies on the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors.

On Monday, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered the special election to proceed as scheduled after determining a lower court's decision to suspend the election was null and void.

In a separate interview, Begaye said he was glad the Navajo people finally had the opportunity to vote.

"I saw in the faces of our people out there, at the chapters, it did not matter whether they were voting for Begaye-Nez or Shirley-Benally, they were just happy they were able to cast their vote today," he said.

Nez called the victory "very humbling and exciting."

"I think this is the first step to reconciling and the nation to heal," he said.

Across the sport center's parking lot at Nakai Hall, where Shirley set up his election night party, there was a somber mood.

Shirley stood in front of the stage, greeting supporters and signing campaign signs.

"It's not as we expected, but I'm still very thankful that the people have spoken, the people have voted. They were involved with their government, those who voted today. It's their resources, and that's the way it should be, so I am thankful for that," Shirley said. "It's not the end of the world. Life goes on. You win some and lose some."

Shirley said he will continue his service on the Apache County Board of Supervisors.

In the race for the Northern Agency seat on the election board, the unofficial results show Sammy Ahkeah received 5,725 votes, and William Lee received 2,654.

Ahkeah, of Shiprock, thanked his voters for their support when reached for comment by telephone Tuesday night.

"There's a lot of election laws that need to be changed and updated," Ahkead said.

He would like to work on improving that system, as well as computerizing the tribe's campaign finance system.

After Lee, of Shiprock, was informed about the unofficial results, he said he would need to take some time before commenting.

Earlier in the day, voter turnout was steady at the Sheep Springs Chapter house.

Sheep Springs resident Lisa Nelson, along with three family members, traveled to the chapter house to vote.

"I think it was an inconvenience how long it's taken ... but I'm glad they're finally having us come out and vote for a president," Nelson said.

Alberta Hunter, of Sheep Springs, shared Nelson's sentiments about the election delay but added that the tribe's election laws need to change.

"I feel like the younger generation has more opportunities and how to lead our people better because we are not living in the past, we're living in the future, and we need to give them that chance," Hunter said.

The chapter houses in Naschitti and Shiprock also received steady turnout on Tuesday.

"I think this election should have been over a long time ago," Shiprock resident Cheryl Martin said.

She added she was disappointed the votes for Chris Deschene did not count during the early walk-in voting process because his name was eliminated from the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

"People made their voices heard, but that didn't seem to matter," she said.

Photographer Alexa Rogals contributed to this report.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.