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Shirley v. Deschene: Traditional v. New Generation for Navajo President

Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene will head into November’s elections for Navajo President following Tuesday’s primaries.
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Joe Shirley Jr., the Navajo Nation’s only two-term president, has a shot at a third term.

Voters during Tuesday’s primary election selected Shirley and Chris Deschene from a list of 17 presidential candidates, which featured seasoned politicians, newcomers and the sitting president. Sixteen men and one woman from locations all over the 27,000-square-mile reservation vied for a chance at the tribe’s top elected position. Nine were from Arizona, seven from New Mexico and one from Utah.

Shirley, of Chinle, Arizona, and Deschene, of LeChee, Arizona, will face off during the November 4 general election.

Shirley, who served back-to-back terms from 2003 to 2011, led the polls with 10,910 votes, according to unofficial results released late Tuesday. In his campaign, Shirley promised to serve with “heart, integrity, diplomacy and sacredness of mind.”

Deschene, a first-time presidential candidate and a former Arizona state representative, earned 9,734 votes. He pointed to his 10 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps and work as a tribal energy attorney as he campaigned for a “new generation of leadership.”

Russell Begaye, a one-term delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, came in third with 7,404 votes, followed by Donald Benally, who finished third in the 2010 presidential election, and Edison Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration.

The incumbent, Ben Shelly, came in seventh with 2,446 votes. In a statement to Navajo Times late Tuesday, Shelly said his political service is over.

“The people have spoken, as you know,” he said. “I got a lot of projects that would have supplied a lot of jobs, but the people couldn’t see that. My political career ends here.”

The general election promises more than a race between a familiar face and a newcomer, however, said Ron Wood, a political insider and author of a White Paper released earlier this year calling for reform in the tribal government. Shirley, who speaks fluent Navajo, campaigned by singing traditional songs, greeting voters in Navajo and offering traditional meals. Deschene, who does not speak fluent Navajo, earned support from the more contemporary crowd, Wood said.

“We’ve got the traditional candidate who appeals to the older, traditional Navajos, and the younger candidate who represents the new generation,” he said. “I think that’s what this election is going to hinge on.”

Another determining factor could be candidates for vice president, Wood said. According to Navajo law, the two candidates have five days to pick running mates.

“That’s going to be a big deal for a lot of people,” he said.

More than 114,000 Navajos were registered to vote in the primary election, which also included 312 candidates for 24 seats on the Navajo Nation Council and representatives for the Board of Election Supervisors, the Navajo Board of Education and some local school boards.

A total of 51,300 votes were cast in the presidential race, according to the Election Administration.

Here are the unofficial results for all 17 presidential candidates:

Joe Shirley, Jr. – 10,910

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Chris Deschene – 9,734

Russell Begaye – 7,404

Donald Benally – 5,286

Kenneth Maryboy – 3,153

Edison J. Wauneka – 2,454

Ben Shelly – 2,446

Myron McLaughlin – 2,333

Carrie Lynn Martin – 2,136

Dale E. Tsosie – 1,278

Duane H. Yazzie – 1,112

Moroni Benally – 965

Cal Nez – 592

Edison Begay – 547

Hank Whitethorne – 398

Kee Yazzie Mann – 336

Dan Smith – 216