Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has filed formal declarations in a New Mexico House of Representative race, where he will run against three other Democrats, including one other Native American.
New Mexico House of Representatives District 69 is a large district, covering all or parts of six counties – Bernalillo, Cibola, McKinley, Socorro, San Juan, and Valencia – as well as two Navajo Nation chapters and three pueblos. The district includes nearly 29,000 voters, who are 64 percent American Indian, 20 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent white.
Four candidates filed by the March 8 deadline: Terry Fletcher and Harry Garcia of Grants, New Mexico, former President Shelly – who will appear on the ballot as “Bennie Shelly,” due to a long-standing mistake in his voter registration record – and Lloyd Felipe, a member of Pueblo of Acoma. The candidates will compete in a Democratic primary on June 7. There is no Republican opposition in the heavily Democratic district - June’s winner will run unopposed in November.
Despite the strong Native American demographic, there has never been a Native American representative in the district, to the best of any of the candidates’ knowledge.
Desmond Tome, Shelly’s spokesman, said the biggest challenge will be enticing voters to get to the polls, as turnout in the district has historically hovered around 20 percent in primary elections.
“There needs to be a re-invigoration of voters on primary election day,” he said.
Shelly is a long-time politician who served as a council delegate and vice president of the Navajo Nation before serving as president from 2011 to 2015. He lost re-election in 2014, and has since operated a new business, Shelly Trucking and Excavating LLC, with four employees.
“He truly wants to improve job creation, which he’s been successful at as president of the Navajo Nation,” Tome said. “He also wants to improve the infrastructure. While gathering petitions, he went to a lot of the rural areas and found that the infrastructure was very poor. That includes the roads.”
Shelly noted in a statement that he created 2,400 new jobs as Navajo Nation president, and made headway on transportation improvements.
“Even though we’ve made progress in paved roads, there is still a need for new and improved roads,” he said. “I see that as a priority for District 69.”
One of Shelly’s opponents, Felipe, is a member of the Pueblo of Acoma and is in the final year of an eight-year term on the Cibola County Commission. He said his service as a county commissioner, and as a Cibola County School Board member prior to that, has given him a record of service and a deep familiarity with issues in the district.
“I think we need help when it comes to funding some of the infrastructure that is suffering – roads, and schools,” he said. “We need help for the elderly and veterans. Being in the state legislature would help me provide some of those resources.”
Felipe holds a business degree from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing a master’s degree. Outside of politics, he has worked as a businessman, an educator and a tribal administrator.
Fletcher could not be reached for comment, but according to information on one of his business pages, he has lived in Grants, New Mexico, near the center of the district, for 53 years. He is a graduate of Grants High School and the University of New Mexico, and worked for 40 years in the mining industry. He has served as the president of the New Mexico Mining Safety Commission, the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce, the Grants Mining Museum Board and the Bank of New Mexico Board of Directors. He also serves as the treasurer of the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathalon, a popular race that recently completed its 33rd year.
Candidate Garcia says he has lived in Grants for his whole life, aside from the 16 months he served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam as soon as he finished high school. Garcia and his family have owned numerous businesses in Grants, including a towing and auto body shop and, most recently, a portable shed production company.
“There are a bunch of issues that need to be addressed,” he said of his goals for the District. “We’re so depressed in terms of jobs, it’s unreal. We need to take care of education. We need to take care of our veterans, and senior citizens. But the biggest deal is jobs. I’ve been all around the reservations and the counties talking to people, and it’s the same thing everywhere. People aren’t working.”
Garcia says he is planning numerous visits to voters in the district, including during an upcoming feast day at the Pueblo of Laguna on March 19.
Shelly’s first official campaign stop will be at a monthly meeting of the Cibola County Republicans on Tuesday, March 15.