Economic development, public safety among issues discussed

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SHIPROCK — The latest forum for the Navajo Nation presidential candidates continued to provide insight for voters here on Monday.

There are 18 candidates vying for the presidency, and 17 of them occupied two rows on the stage at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center.

Incumbent Russell Begaye was the first candidate to speak, and he opened with a nod to Shiprock High School, from which he graduated.

Within the allotted two minutes for introductions, Begaye touted a list of accomplishments by his administration since he stepped into office in May 2015. That list included his approval of $6.3 million in supplemental funding for Navajo Head Start and his approval of a $1.2 million contract for the Southwest Indian Foundation to build houses for Navajo veterans.

In his opening remarks, Vice President Jonathan Nez expressed concern about the ongoing stigma over produce grown using San Juan River water, despite soil and water tests that show the water is safe three years after the Gold King Mine spill dumped toxic waste into the water.

"Fruits and vegetables that are being grown here in Shiprock are OK to eat," Nez said.

He said Navajo students are among those at New Mexico State University who are conducting the tests, and they called his attention to the negative economic impact the spill continues to have on farming communities along the river.

Agriculture was also mentioned by Dineh Benally in his introduction.

"I'm the (San Juan River) farm board president, and I feel the pain of our farmers in northern Navajo. We have an irrigation canal over 56 years old," Benally said adding as president, he will ensure that "a strong, beautiful," irrigation system is built.

His comment was met by audience applause.

Hope MacDonald Lonetree tapped into what she thinks tribal members want, including jobs, quality education and protection for families.

"We all have one goal in mind, and that's a better Navajo Nation," she said.

Rounding out the group were candidates Norman Patrick Brown, Tom Chee, Kevin Cody, Emily Ellison, Trudie Jackson, Rex Lee Jim, Calvin Lee Jr., Shawn Redd, Alton Joe Shepherd, Joe Shirley Jr., Nick X. Taylor, Tom Tso and Vincent H. Yazzie. Benny Bahe was absent from the forum.

Candidates asked about various topics

Tom Chee received the first question, which sought his opinion about which issue most prevents the tribe from improving economically and how he would improve that situation.

He said a big problem for the tribe is land status.

"There's no equity. Whatever you put on it, there's no value, while the rest of the country has their wealth by the property they own, the house they own," he said.

Chee added it is time to re-examine and restructure the tribe's relationship with the federal government, including resetting regulations that negatively impact the economy.

In terms of public safety, Trudie Jackson was asked which policies would be implemented under her administration to protect the Navajo people from violence.

"I believe that creating policies and hate crime laws would be a step and looking at hate crime laws that are more inclusive. What I mean by inclusive is it should include everyone, not just the cisgender people," Jackson said.

She added there are groups who experience sexual violence at a higher rate than others, and the creation of policies to protect their rights is needed and overdue.

"In my administration, what I will do is bring in very strong advocates who care for the community. That will include men, women as well as the LGBT population," Jackson said.

Nick X. Taylor was asked to name the biggest problem facing Navajo young people today.

"The biggest problem is communication," the 31-year-old said, adding that respect and proper communication needs to take place between generations and in all levels.

"The youth, I want them to be involved at the chapter level, but everyone has to be (respectful)," Taylor said before telling the audience the last time he visited Shiprock, an older man told him he was "too skinny to be a politician."

Throughout the forum, candidates were asked about diversifying Navajo Nation investments, sustaining the Navajo language, government reform, veterans services and improving infrastructure.

Before candidates fielded questions, Central Consolidated School District Board of Education President Adam Begaye spoke to the audience.

"It is an important evening for all Navajos to listen, to evaluate and to discuss the men and women who placed their names on the ballot for the 2018 Navajo Nation presidential ballots," Begaye said.

The next forum will be held from 5:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 20 at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. The primary election is Aug. 28.

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

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