Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez had a significant lead late Tuesday over his opponent in the race for the tribe’s top post in an election marred by widespread reports of ballot shortages.
Nez had nearly double the votes of former two-term President Joe Shirley Jr. in the non-partisan race. It was unclear how election officials would factor in Navajos who were unable to cast ballots but Nez and Shirley said they didn’t expect the outcome of the race to change.
Nez declared victory before a raucous crowd in the tribe’s capital of Window Rock, saying he would start work Wednesday.
“That’s the voice of the Navajo people wanting change,” he said.
Shirley in a telephone interview did not explicitly concede defeat but said “the numbers speak for themselves.” Nez was leading 39,783-20,146 with all precincts reporting.
Elections director Edbert Little said the tribe ordered more than enough ballots for the 110 precincts on the vast reservation that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. He attributed the shortage to machines that rejected the paper ballots and said some voters had to be given replacement ballots.
Steve Blackrock left a polling place near Pinon after writing down his information and waiting for an hour to see if more ballots would arrive.
“It’s a sad feeling knowing that you weren’t able to participate in such an important day,” he said.
More than 60 percent of the tribe’s 98,000 registered voters cast a ballot in the presidential race.
The tribe’s primary election in August drew a record 18 candidates, with Nez and Shirley emerging as the top two vote-getters. Outgoing President Russell Begaye came in fifth.
Nez and Shirley set priorities similar to those of past candidates: Serving the elderly, veterans and youth; developing the economy; building homes; extending water and electricity service to Navajos in need; and enticing business to a reservation with high unemployment that will worsen with a hit to one of its most important economic sectors.
The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station power plant near the Arizona-Utah border and the coal mine in the community of Kayenta that feeds it are set to close in late 2019. When those go, tribal officials say revenue from lease payments and coal royalties will drop 30 percent.
Both Shirley and Nez worried about the hundreds of jobs that also will be lost. The tribe was negotiating with a potential buyer for the power plant but the talks fell through. Peabody Energy, which owns the mine, led the push to find a successor for the power plant.
One last hope could be the Navajo Nation itself, which said last week that it’s looking into buying the Navajo Generating Station.
The reservation has abundant coal, so tribal leaders have been hesitant to shy away from the coal industry even as the fuel falls out of favor with utilities nationwide.
The tribe owns a different coal mine in northwestern New Mexico and has a 7 percent stake in the power plant that it supplies with coal.
Nez has talked about finding another use for the plant, such as converting it to natural gas, or building a rail line to export coal. He said Tuesday he would try to avoid layoffs.
Pauline Butler voted in Leupp, Arizona, where tribal members were serving fry bread and stew at campaign tents. She said she was inspired by Nez being open to renewable energy and his drive to serve his people.
“He certainly has the heart and soul to do this.”
Nez said promoting self-sufficiency, tourism and Navajo-owned businesses, and revamping tribal laws are part of his equation to boost revenue. In his time as vice president, Nez was known as an advocate for health and wellness. He cites himself as an example, saying he became a long distance runner after he hit 300 pounds (136 kilograms).
He said he’d leave economic development strategy largely to his vice president, Myron Lizer, who manages hardware stores on the reservation.
Jenny Buckinghorse voted for Shirley, citing a water rights case his administration settled in New Mexico, and water and power that was delivered to tribal members.
“You can tell when somebody did something,” she said. “There’s evidence.”
Shirley and his running mate, Buu Van Nygren, had a platform focused on business development, tourism and empowering small Navajo communities to impose local taxes, for example.
“I’m not going to go around with my head hung low,” Shirley said late Tuesday. “I told my team we shouldn’t. I felt like we ran a good campaign.”
The first of four Navajo Nation casinos opened under Shirley’s previous administration. Construction of a new coal-fired power plant that he championed never happened.