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Talk centers on planned closure of Navajo Generating Station

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CROWNPOINT — Jonathan Nez and Joe Shirley Jr. responded to questions that centered on various topics during the first debate of the Navajo Nation presidential race here on Tuesday evening.

The debate at Navajo Technical University came a week after early voting started for the tribe's general election.

Supporters of both candidates waved campaign signs and were asked at times to hold their applause and cheers because the sound interfered with the candidates' responses.

Nez, who currently serves as the tribe's vice president, and Shirley, who is seeking the presidency again after having previously served two terms, were asked about plans to address the closure of the Navajo Generating Station.

Utility owners of the coal-fired power plant, located outside of Page, Arizona, voted in 2017 to end their operation in favor of using power from natural gas-burning plants, the Arizona Republic has reported. The plant is scheduled to close in December 2019.

The planned closure is concerning to Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders due to the number of jobs and annual revenue provided to the tribes by the power plant and the mine that provides coal to the plant.

"I don’t want to lose the jobs that are there. I don't want to lose the jobs at the coal mine. Those are good jobs," Shirley said adding he would do everything he can to save those positions.

In Nez's response, he said talks about how to address the shutdown have taken place for several years, but leaders have not developed solutions. It is time to look at alternatives, including projects like the solar farm near Kayenta, Arizona, and boosting tourism, he said.

"Let's diversify the economy," Nez said.

Throughout the two-hour debate, the candidates often spoke in the Navajo language and fielded a couple of questions about preserving language and culture.

Nez said parents and grandparents should take the lead in teaching language and culture, along with getting support from school programs. It takes a community to teach language and culture, he said.

"Those of you who are school board members, we challenge you. Let's put sheep camp back in the curriculum," Nez said.

Shirley said in his rebuttal that Nez has failed to implement resources to maintain language and culture since becoming vice president.

"Language identifies us," Shirley said in Navajo.

The candidates from time to time criticized each other's work but an area they agreed on was the idea of promoting higher education opportunities at NTU and Diné College.

"We need to work with the students," Shirley said adding it is important to hear from students attending both colleges because they are experiencing the campus environment.

"I think this is where we both agree that NTU and Diné College should be career higher institutions on the Navajo Nation," Nez said.

Before the presidential debate, Myron Lizer, Nez's selection for vice president, and Buu Nygren, Shirley's running mate, met in a separate debate.

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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