More than a dozen hopefuls face questions in Crownpoint

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CROWNPOINT — Candidates vying for the Navajo Nation presidency were asked to weigh in on various issues facing the tribe in a forum Monday evening at Navajo Technical University here.

Tribal members attended the event to learn more about 15 of the 18 candidates and to hear responses to questions that covered such topics as business development as social issues.

Incumbent Russell Begaye, Dineh Benally, Norman Patrick Brown, Tom Chee, Emily Ellison, Rex Lee Jim, Calvin Lee Jr., Hope MacDonald Lonetree, Jonathan Nez, Shawn Redd, Alton Joe Shepherd, Joe Shirley Jr., Nick Taylor, Tom Tso and Vincent H. Yazzie fielded questions from panelists in three rounds.

The primary election is Aug. 28.

During the first round, Vice President Jonathan Nez was asked whether tribal enterprises have served their purpose and if it is time for them to function independently.

"I absolutely believe that government should stay out of business," Nez said, adding there is opportunity for people to start businesses on the Navajo Nation.

Tom Chee, who represents the Shiprock Chapter on the tribal council, was asked to name the most prized tribal enterprise among the 13 established by the Navajo Nation.

"NAPI has so much potential. With 27,000 square miles of land out there, we have to look at it as a potential," Chee said adding it is time for its production to benefit the Navajo people.

Former president Joe Shirley Jr., who is seeking a third term after having previously served from 2003 to 2011, was asked his opinion about using the Permanent Trust Fund.

"Good question. Continue to save it," Shirley said, adding some business owners do not use their own money to invest in projects and explaining that is a route the tribe could take for future development.

The annual salary for the tribal president has been $55,000 since 1989, and former vice president Rex Lee Jim was asked if it is time for an increase.

Jim said a person's qualifications should determine the amount. He added there are several vacancies in the tribal government because salaries remain low, causing well-qualified individuals to seek employment elsewhere.

Tom Tso, Emily Ellison and Norman Patrick Brown repeatedly cited government reform in their responses and comments.

In a question about the biggest problem facing the Navajo people, Tso pointed to the tribal government because it is "full of loopholes."

"The government is drafted in such a way that you can easily manipulate the provisions within the code," Tso said.

Ellison reminded the audience the government was created in the 1920s to extract natural resources, and it continues to lack transparency and access to public information.

"Everything is hidden. We don’t have civil rights, and as long as we don't have that, we are at the mercy of whoever is elected and whoever they are agreeing with," she said.

Brown told the audience it has been 29 years since tribal leaders promised to establish a permanent form of government, and a divided government cannot effectively address issues.

"You are the supreme authority of the Navajo Nation," he said.

The next forum will be held July 16 at the Ganado High School Pavilion near Ganado, Arizona.

Others are planned for July 23 at the Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, Aug. 6 at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock and Aug. 20 at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.

Each forum will be from 5:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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