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Shannon Pinto, Shawn Nelson squaring off on June 2

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FARMINGTON — It's not unusual for candidates squaring off against each other in a party primary election to struggle to distinguish themselves from each other in terms of policy. But the two people vying for the Democratic nomination for the state Senate District 3 seat have more in common than most folks in their position.

Incumbent Sen. Shannon Pinto is facing off against challenger Shawn Nelson. Pinto is the granddaughter of the legendary John Pinto, who held the seat from 1977 to 2019, when his death lead to Shannon Pinto being appointed to finish his term. Nelson is John Pinto's nephew.

Both candidates cite their late relative as a profound influence and say they hope to continue his legacy. They are both members of the Navajo Nation, and both have deep roots in the community — Nelson as an artist who also serves as a member of the advisory board for the Octavia Felin Public Library in Gallup and Pinto as a public school teacher who regularly joined her grandfather on campaign trips.

The district they both hope to represent includes portions of San Juan and McKinley counties, and, roughly speaking, resembles a question mark. It includes the northwest corner of New Mexico, reaching the Colorado and Arizona borders, and absorbing Shiprock and the southwest corner of Farmington before it juts south and takes in the northern side of Gallup. It features a predominately Native population.

Nelson decries response to pandemic

Nelson said his focus as a legislator would be on such issues as climate change and education, along with helping District 3 receive the state funding it deserves. The district already was inadequately served in the health care arena, he said, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made that plain to see.

"We don't have enough beds," he said. "It's sad to see."

Nelson said the entirety of the response to the virus in Navajo county has been poor, and he holds elected officials at all levels responsible for that. He said Navajo officials and state officials in New Mexico have each taken their own approach, with little to no coordination between them. He wants to see the two entities join forces and develop a solid plan for halting the spread of COVID-19, which has taken a heavy toll on the Navajo Nation.

"We do need to work together and work as a team," he said. "We're just not containing the virus."

Nelson is a New Mexico native, but he spent many years living in Arizona and Los Angeles, earning an associate degree as a certified medical assistant and serving as a board member for Clearinghouse CDFI, a community development lender that finances projects benefiting low-income, underserved communities in California.

It was during his time in Los Angeles that Nelson said he saw the worth of the recycling movement, and he plans to push for those programs in New Mexico if elected, adding that they tie into his larger concern for the environment.

"I don't understand why they don't do that here," he said.

Nelson said aggressive recycling programs could help address the problem of litter on the Navajo Nation.

"When you travel across the reservation, all you see is a bunch of trash," he said.

Nelson proudly counts himself as a Navajo speaker and said he places great value on his culture and traditions. He believes education is the key to helping people build their self-respect, and he said he plans to continue his community-building efforts regardless of whether he is elected to the District 3 seat.

Pinto disappointed in first session

Nelson's primary opponent, Shannon Pinto, said her first taste of the legislative experience — a 30-day session that took place earlier this year — offered her a lesson in how entrenched partisanship has become at the Roundhouse.

"You're really reminded of the partisan lines that exist despite our consensus to help the people of New Mexico," she said.

Pinto said that during a short session, when the primary responsibility of lawmakers is to craft and adopt a state budget, she would have expected a much less-combative atmosphere between the two parties. Instead, she said, there was considerable discord that almost derailed the whole process.

"It was a 30-day session, so I knew it was going to crunch time," she said. "I know you have your plan, but you have to be flexible, too."

Despite her disappointment, Pinto said she enjoyed the experience and came away with a lot of positives. She said she had her eye on someday becoming the District 3 senator even when campaigning with her grandfather, and she has a list of long-term goals for the district, including the development of children's and women's hospitals — two segments of the population that are badly underserved in northwest New Mexico, she said.

"That would address a lot of issues," she said. "I think that would be something that is not a highly debatable subject."

Pinto also wants to develop all-purpose facilities for the district's older residents — places where they can continue the learning process, be active and engage with each other.

She also is committed to seeing to it that long-held plans for a Navajo Code Talker museum in New Mexico reach fruition. She said the establishment of such a facility was a priority for her grandfather, and she proudly pointed to the $1 million in funding he secured for the project.

Pinto said she is not aware of any opposition to the project, but there have been competing design plans crafted for the project, and no consensus has emerged about which plan should be followed.

Of course, the main issue standing in the way of completion of the project is funding, she said. The museum has been estimated to cost anywhere from $20 million to $27 million.

Pinto said she has been in communication with her fellow senators over the past several weeks, and she said they all seem to sense the enormity of the challenge before them in steering the state through the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuring economic crisis.

"I don't think anybody expected this," she said. "It's unprecedented, even for senior senators."

But Pinto said her thoughts of late have been with her graduating seniors at Tohatchi High School, some of whom she had taught several times through various grades. Earlier this week, she was writing personal letters for each of them, explaining that she wished she could shake their hands and wish them well.

"I'm hoping they keep moving forward. As a teacher, one of the things I told them is that I hope they learn four-letter words other than the ones they normally use," she said, chuckling. "And 'care' was one of them."

The primary election is set for Tuesday, June 2. The winner of the race between Pinto and Nelson will face Republican challenger Arthur Allison in the general election in November.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.

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