Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren advance to Navajo presidency | Health & Fitness

By FELICIA FONSECA Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo Nation voters will see familiar faces in the tribe’s general election: its current president and a former vice-presidential candidate, both on the ballot in 2018.

President Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren got the most votes in Tuesday’s primary among a field of 15. Whoever wins will oversee the largest Native American reservation in the US and the second-highest tribal population.

Both have spoken of the need for economic development and to extend running water and electricity to the thousands of Navajo who do not have it. Where they differ is in the approach to moving through the coronavirus pandemic.

The Navajo Nation once had one of the highest infection rates in the United States. The Nez administration enacted tough measures to slow the spread. Movie theaters, restaurants, casinos and gyms are not yet fully open, and the mask mandate remains.

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Nez, a veteran politician, has championed the approach to keeping people safe. He said he would bring continuity in a second term as the tribe works to spend more than $1 billion in federal virus relief funds that would largely address infrastructure.

“I think the Navajo people saw that we can handle a difficult situation,” Nez, 47, told The Associated Press. “Not just coming from leadership, but from bringing the Navajo people together to take care of our people, and they did an outstanding job.”

Nygren was a running mate of former President Joe Shirley Jr. in 2018. The two lost to Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.

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Nygren left his job in construction management to seek the tribe’s top elected position and says Navajo businesses are suffering due to pandemic restrictions. He said the Navajo Nation has not been quick enough to respond to a huge loss of revenue from the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants and should capitalize on tourism. He has positioned himself as a diplomat who will bring a modern perspective to the presidency.

“It is very clear that new leadership is being sought throughout the Navajo Nation,” the 35-year-old told The Associated Press. “Just the number of people who came to vote in a Navajo election where there was flooding, the roads were terrible.”

More than 47,501 Navajos cast ballots in the tribe’s primary election, a nearly 39% turnout among more than 123,000 registered voters, according to unofficial results from the tribe’s elections office. The tribe generally sees a share of around 50%. Results will not be certified until after a challenge period.

Nez garnered more than 17,000 votes in the primary and Nygren garnered nearly 13,000 with all 110 reported constituencies, according to unofficial results. Rounding out the top five were attorney Justin Jones, former Navajo attorney general Ethel Branch and Greg Bigman, chairman of the Diné College Board of Regents, who together received nearly 14,000 votes.

The reservation is larger than 10 US states and encompasses 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of high desert, forests, windswept plateaus and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

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The slate of candidates agreed that more jobs are needed on the reservation where unemployment hovers around 50%. The candidates pushed platforms that included finding ways to preserve the Navajo language and pressuring the federal government to do its duty to provide public safety, health and education.

Supporters of the candidates set up tents across the Navajo Nation on Tuesday, offering fried bread and other food to voters as they made a last-ditch campaign effort. Election day is a social event on the Navajo Nation, although some precautions were still taken due to the coronavirus pandemic. That included closing to the public the sports center in the tribal capital of Window Rock, where election results are tallied.

The other candidates were educator Dolly Mason; academic Leslie Tsosie; Chinle Chapter President Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie-Davis; former New Mexico State Legislator Sandra Jeff; Emily Ellison; former Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish; Ts’ah Bii Kin chapter manager Earl Sombrero; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, who ran for tribal presidency in 2018.

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