Begaye Back In the Race for Navajo President; Deschene Off Ballotts

Russell Begaye is gearing up for a fast-track campaign for president of the Navajo Nation as he has replaced Chris Deschene on the ballots.
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Russell Begaye is gearing up for a fast-track campaign for president of the Navajo Nation.

Begaye, a career businessman and one-term Tribal Council delegate who finished third of 17 candidates in the August primary election, suddenly found himself back on the ballot after the Navajo Supreme Court disqualified Chris Deschene and ordered election officials to postpone the presidential election. The court’s ruling, which followed nearly two months of legal maneuvering, came just four days before voters were scheduled to select a new president.

RELATED: Navajo Supreme Court Postpones Presidential Election, Date TBA

A special election has not yet been scheduled, but Begaye, of Shiprock, New Mexico, plans to use the time to unite and re-energize the Navajo people.

“I’m back in the race under unfortunate circumstances,” he said during a phone interview. “People have distrust in the system, they feel they weren’t respected, so I need to provide a degree of hope.”

Deschene, who finished second to Joe Shirley Jr., in the primary election, was challenged over questions of language fluency. Navajo election law requires presidential candidates to speak fluent English and Navajo, and Deschene was disqualified when he declined to take a test proving he could speak and understand Navajo.

RELATED: Deschene Out of Navajo Election, Presidential Vote Looks to Be Postponed

Deschene claimed the test was unfair and unprecedented, and that it targeted him specifically. He gained a following of voters who agreed fluency is subjective and can’t be measured.

With Deschene officially out of the race, Begaye inherits a fair amount of animosity and disappointment, he said. While he campaigned vigorously before the primary election, he said now he wants to see more of a grassroots crusade rise up on his behalf.

“I think the huge majority of people have already made up their minds,” he said. “Most people already know who they’re going to vote for, so I don’t need to go into a full-scale campaign.”

Instead, Begaye is sending volunteers out to knock on doors and make personal connections with voters. He also invites everyone to approach him directly with questions or concerns.

Begaye’s return to the presidential race is not without controversy, however. On October 31, the same day the Supreme Court postponed the election and permanently disqualified Deschene, a former candidate filed a 162-page motion to disqualify Begaye because of his involvement as a stakeholder with the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company. The Office of Hearings and Appeals is scheduled to hear the case on November 13.

Barring any surprises, Begaye’s name will appear on the ballot with Jonathan Nez as his running mate. Begaye announced his vice presidential candidate during a press conference Wednesday in the Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Nation.

During a phone interview, Begaye said Nez represents the hope voters need.

“He’s a candidate known for listening to people,” Begaye said. “He’s practical, he thinks things through and in his heart he wants to serve the Nation and meet the needs of people for years to come. He’s going to play an important role in bringing the Nation back together.”

Nez, of Shonto, Arizona, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Arizona University and serves as a supervisor for Navajo County, Arizona. An avid runner, Nez is an advocate for healthy living and hopes to someday run a marathon in all 50 states.

Nez, who was re-elected for another four-year term on the Council during Tuesday’s general election, will have to resign from that position should he be elected as vice president.

The special presidential election likely will be held in late December.