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Campaign 2004: Southwest primaries attract Native pollsters

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - They may not have been the deciding factor in Democratic presidential primary voting in Arizona and New Mexico Feb. 3 since Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won so handily in both states.

But Democratic Party officials were all smiles after the Feb. 3 primaries because of a much heavier than expected Native American vote in the two states, the turnout of which nearly doubled the predicted 10 percent by tribal election officials.

"This really bodes well for other elections in the future because the Navajos, in particular, were engaged in an election outside the reservation boundaries," said Paul Hegarty, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

Although individual precinct totals have yet to be released in the northeastern Arizona counties of Apache and Navajo, where the Navajo, Hopi and White Mountain Apache tribes are located, it was clear that Native voters turned out in greater numbers than had been anticipated. About nine out of 10 voters on the three reservations are Democrats.

The same also was true in the northwestern New Mexico counties of San Juan and McKinley, where the Navajo Nation is located.

"We haven't seen a full canvass of the vote yet but Navajo County reported an 18.6 percent turnout and Apache County was at 17.3 percent," Hegarty said.

Willencia Bia, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Nation elections office, said final results had not been compiled yet in the Chinle Agency of the reservation, located in Arizona, and the Eastern Agency, located in New Mexico.

`"But it looks like from what we've seen thus far that the turnout was about 20 percent in many of the chapters, which is a very pleasant surprise," Bia said.

There are about 47,000 registered Navajo Democrats in Arizona and about 25,000 in New Mexico, election officials said.

In past Democratic presidential primaries, turnout had been under 10 percent on the Navajo Nation. Making this vote all the more remarkable was that a major snowstorm plowed through the nation's largest reservation on election day and that none of the candidates except Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman visited Navajo.

But at the Klagetoh chapter in the southeastern part of the reservation, 86 of the 561 registered voters had turned out by midafternoon on Feb. 3, said chapter spokeswoman Elsie Begay. Election officials in the Cornfields chapter, near the Arizona-New Mexico border in northeastern Arizona, said that 92 of 700 registered voters had cast ballots by noon.

Lieberman, who dropped out of the race after a disappointing finish in Arizona, had spoken to the Navajo Nation council last year. He also ran some radio ads, which were translated into the Navajo language, during the last week of the campaign.

Lieberman, however, finished second in Navajo County behind Kerry with nearly 21 percent of the vote after endorsements by tribal leaders.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of John Kerry, also visited the western part of Navajo three days before the election, where she toured a Tuba City hospital and spoke to campaign supporters at the local chapter house.

Hegarty said he hopes the increased political activity on the reservation will translate into help for other Democratic candidates like Paul Babbitt, brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is running for Arizona's Congressional District 1 seat this fall against incumbent Republican Rep. Rick Renzi.

Although Navajos have traditionally shunned Republican candidates, Renzi has spent a lot of time campaigning on the reservation and political observers have been curious as to whether a Republican could make some inroads with the Navajo vote this election.

The Democrats have been involved in a major voter-registration drive at Navajo and other parts of Arizona during the past year and have added 10,000 voters statewide, Hegarty said.