Navajo Nation citizens will head to the polls Tuesday to decide who will be president of one of the largest Indigenous nations in the country. Long-time politician and incumbent Jonathan Nez is facing newcomer Buu Van Nygren.
Nez, a career politician, was first elected to president in 2018. His first term was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. He spent two years guiding his nation through it, enacting some of the strictest health orders in the country in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
Now, that the pandemic has slowed, the Nez administration is shifting its focus back to the platform he ran on four years ago, building and expanding infrastructure.
“Fiber is being laid as we speak in our communities, the major lines,” Nez told ICT. “All we need to do is just start connecting them to the homes throughout our Navajo Nation.”
It doesn’t end there.
“We were able to get electricity to over a thousand homes,” he said. “We also connected many homes to the major water lines that are being placed on our nation.”
This election cycle Nez is flexing the work his administration has been able to accomplish due in large part to funding from the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the CARES Act and the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act. The Navajo Nation has received billions from the federal government to build out electricity, water and broadband.
“The goal is to open the door back up to our Navajo people so they can live here and that's why water and electricity are important,” Nez said. “Many of our Navajo people do want to return home but they don't have infrastructure. They don't have the water, electricity or even the internet.”
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The Navajo Nation has more than 407,000 citizens and half of them live off their homelands in the surrounding border towns or cities across the country. With the emphasis on building infrastructure Nez is hoping this will bring young people back home to help build the nation.
“I've always said, we have to act like a sovereign nation,” Nez said. “You got countries out there that are sovereign nations as well, and they put a lot of money into infrastructure early on, 20, 50 years ago. Today, because of that investment, their countries are booming.”
Over the last two decades as an elected leader, Nez has been able to connect with people at the local, state and federal levels. This network is important to being a leader, something that a first time candidate won’t have, Nez said.
“We have an open door to the White House. Little do people know that a person's network is very important,” he said. “Being in public service close to 20 years, from being a chapter vice president to a council delegate, to a county board of supervisor, to a vice president, now president, we've developed a network.”
He selected a first time candidate, Chad Abeyta, an attorney and veteran from Alamo, New Mexico. Most Arizona presidential candidates pick a running mate from New Mexico. There was speculation that Nez might choose a woman as his vice presidential pick but that didn’t happen.
Buu Nygren said he heard the voices from the people who wanted to see a woman in the Office of the President and Vice-President. So, he chose chapter president, Richelle Montoya, from Torreon, New Mexico. If elected she would be the first woman elected as vice president and the first to ever serve in the Office of the President and Vice-President.
Nygren did something unprecedented this election and had people apply to be selected as the vice-presidential candidate. Montoya told ICT she applied, got interviewed twice and was ultimately offered the position. She was part of his campaign team.
In the primary election, Nez won with 36 percent of the votes, leaving some 64 percent of votes up for grabs. Buu Van Nygren secured a spot in the general election with 27 percent of the votes.
“Almost 70 percent of the people said, ‘We want change. We want a new direction. We want something different,’” Nygren said in an interview with ICT. “I think that a lot of us are just tired of the same rhetorics, same politicians, this occupying space and, and I think that's a turning point for the Navajo Nation. So it's just a plus that I'm a young candidate fired up.”
Nygren was the youngest presidential candidate out of the 15 that ran this cycle. He is 35 years old. Nygren has never held public office and spent the majority of his career working in managerial and executive positions in the construction industry. Prior to running for office, he worked for Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation.
He ran in the last election as a vice president candidate with Joe Shirley Jr., who he had previously campaigned for.
Nygren has his doctorate degree from the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership.
“It was very evident that Navajo people wanted a working person in the president's office and a new generation too,” he said.
He noted that the second, third, fourth and fifth place candidates in the primary election were all working professionals.
Nygren’s platform is all about getting back to the basics. He wants to see Navajo systems modernized to streamline the government. This needs to be fixed before anything else can be successful.
“The example I always like to give is, every four years the Navajo Nation puts up a brand new house, but within one month the drywall is cracking. The windows are breaking. The roof is leaking. The concrete is cracking. The reason all that stuff is happening, even though we put a brand new house every four years, is because we haven't addressed the foundational issues,” Nygren said. “The foundation needs to be revamped because a strong foundation would mean that every time we put a brand new house, we don't have to keep rebuilding it on and on and on and on.”
“That's where my focus wants to be, is government efficiency and effectiveness using the latest and greatest because that's how every other government and every other organization is operating. Why haven't we adapted to a lot of these technologies?”
This modernization will fix a lot of the issues that people on the Navajo Nation face, from getting a homesite lease to small business owners being able to get their business licenses.
“You get community members that submit applications to certain departments or chapter houses and everything just disappears,” Nygren said. “It just goes in a black hole or something like that. I think with today's technology that's something we should work on.”
Nygren has been out campaigning and talking to voters. His to-do list is quite long but a lot of issues he noted are at the points where citizens are interacting with the Navajo Nation government office. This is why he is focused on fixing those systems.
He has also stated that he will work with the Navajo Nation Council. This is something that was challenging for the Nez administration that at times didn’t work effectively with the council.
“One of the things I've campaigned on since the very beginning of my announcement is really having that teamwork mentality with Navajo Nation Council,” he said.
More than 126,000 Navajos are registered to vote in the tribe's general election on Nov. 8 that will also determine the makeup of the 24-member Navajo Nation Council — often seen as more powerful than the presidency.
Nez and Nygren are limited to raising about $180,000 each for the nonpartisan race, including the primary. Donations can come from Navajos only.
Radio plays a huge role in campaign advertising because of the remoteness of the vast 27,000 square-mile reservation. Candidates also spend countless hours on the road meeting with voters in tribal communities and off the reservation.
The tribe has the largest land base by far of any other tribe in the U.S. and its population of about 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time. Voters can cast their ballots at the chapter house they are registered in.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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