FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Two men squaring off in the Navajo presidential race each have chosen a running mate from northwestern New Mexico who is relatively unknown in tribal politics.
But the decisions by former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene to pick vice presidential candidates from Shiprock – a community on the opposite side of the reservation from their hometowns – should help them broaden their appeal, said Manley Begay, a Navajo and professor in applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University.
“At this point, it’s really about getting the most number of votes on your side,” Begay said Wednesday.
Shirley selected Dineh Benally, a 37-year-old graduate of the New Mexico Military Institute who earned a degree in civil engineering from New Mexico State University to complete his ticket for the November general election. Deschene chose longtime educator Fannie Atcitty, the president of the Dine College Board of Regents and a former culinary union representative and organizer.
The tribe’s vice president is the second in command on the country’s largest American Indian reservation, which stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Begay said voters will be looking toward the presidential candidates and their running mates to see who can best restore the integrity of the leadership on the Navajo Nation.
“It’s so important to the outside to have the Navajo Nation in this rebuilding moment, to be free of political interference and have an unscathed record,” he said.
Shirley said he wanted someone who is young, well-educated and well-grounded. Benally owns a baseball academy and is the son of Donald Benally, one of Shirley’s challengers in the primary election who spent 10 years in federal prison for his role in a 1989 riot in Window Rock.
Begay said that could hurt Shirley’s campaign. However, Donald Benally has placed in the top four during the tribe’s past two presidential primary elections, and Shirley could be using the father-son connection to court voters, Begay said.
Deschene said he believes the 61-year-old Atcitty will energize his campaign and communicate well with government agencies. He said she understands the traditional Navajo way of life and the challenges the tribe faces, including a more than 50 percent unemployment rate. Atcitty told reporters Tuesday that she would focus on preserving the Navajo language and culture.
Atcitty was part of a recent leadership shake-up at Dine College, reported the Daily Times in Farmington, New Mexico. She was dismissed from the Board of Regents and later reinstated by the tribe’s Supreme Court, the newspaper reported.