Navajo Nation presidential candidates make their pitch to Phoenix-area Diné voters

With the Navajo Nation general election only two weeks away, the presidential candidates are making their final pitches to voters — including those who live in the Phoenix area. 

Navajo voters are faced with a choice between incumbent President Jonathan Nez, a veteran of the Navajo political system who is campaigning on his experience, and newcomer Buu Nygren, who is positioning himself as someone who can shake up a government that isn’t responsive enough to the people.

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With a large population of Navajo people living in the Phoenix area, the ASU Law Indian Legal Program held a Navajo Nation Presidential Debate on Oct. 23 so urban Navajo voters could hear where the candidates stand on important issues.

Nez and Nygren went head-to-head in a two-hour debate, answering questions that ranged from government reform to job implementation for college graduates. 

Nez and Nygren answered each question to their strengths, but neither offered solid solutions or plans of action to the issues in the questions. 

Nez defended his decisions during his time in office, first as the vice president and now as president. 

“It’s not time for on-the-job training,” Nez said. “It’s time for experience so that we can lay that foundation so that you can return home to the Navajo Nation and help build your nation.”

Nygren talked about how he would build a more efficient government and take risks needed to get stuff done.

“The time is now for new leadership,” Nygren said. “It’s time the Navajo Nation gives us a chance.”

Kicking off the debate, Nygren explained what changes he would propose to the structure of the Navajo Nation government. He said he’s talked throughout his campaign about how it’s time to build a more efficient, effective government.

“I want to focus on truly empowering the local communities (and) the local leadership because Window Rock is just too far,” he said. “We have to truly invest in our local government to make sure that they are efficient and effective.”

Nez responded that Title 2 of the Navajo Nation Code, which outlines the structure of the Navajo Nation government, needs to be reevaluated. Within that code, Nez said that it indicates the Navajo Nation Council is the governing body.

“We all recognize that the Navajo people are the governing body,” he said. 

Nez said the administration should ensure that the Navajo people can utilize the laws and statutes set in the Navajo Nation Code — including Title 26, which is the Navajo Nation Local Governance Act. 

The ASU Law Indian Legal Program held a Navajo Nation Presidential Debate on Oct. 26, 2022. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

Both candidates also tackled questions about discrepancies in the voting process on the Navajo Nation, following an official recount after the primary election.

Nez defended the voting system in place for Navajo Nation elections and talked about how election processes are being questioned all across the country, but over time it’s been proven that elections are secure. He said that Navajo Nation election officials had noted an accuracy rate of over 95% in elections, showing how the Navajo election administration and election staff are doing an outstanding job.

“We should commend those individuals for doing a great job in securing our elections,” Nez said.

Even with the uncounted ballots found during the official recount, Nez said those would have been found later and eventually counted when the Navajo Nation board of election supervisors had to certify the election.

Nygren did not have the same faith in the current Navajo voting system.

“We have the worst voting system in the country,” he said. “I truly believe we make it so difficult for our people to register and even to vote across the Navajo Nation.”

Nygren said if he is elected president, he will make sure that his office will sign legislation related to voting.

“Under the current administration, he’s vetoed over $3 million … for a better voting system,” Nygren said of Nez. “As your next president, I will not entertain that.”

The legislation that Nygren refers to went through the Navajo Nation Council in May and would have approved a little more than $3 million in emergency funding for the Navajo Nation Election Administration office to be used on expenses in preparation for the 2022 election.

Nez claims that he used his right to line-item veto the spending because it “had so much fluff,” with no money going toward things that mattered, like new polling machines or compensation for poll workers.

Nez said his administration wanted to ensure that the money was being appropriated correctly and that they should not be “paying for the fluff.”  He did not elaborate what “fluff” the legislation proposed.

Navajo voters preparing for Nov. 8

After listening to Nygren and Nez talk about the voting system on the Navajo Nation, Navajo voter Fermina Joe-Desiderio realized that the current system’s issues need to be addressed.

Joe-Desiderio said that she’s been voting for decades and doesn’t recall ever seeing changes to the Navajo Nation voting system. She’s always been given the same ballet type and submitted into the old voting boxes at her chapter house. 

“I’ve been voting since 1987, and the voting process really hasn’t had any changes,” she said. ‘That’s kind of alarming.”

Joe-Desiderio is originally from an area known as Bird Corn Valley on the Navajo Nation, but she lives part-time in the Phoenix area. Being able to vote back home is essential to her, so she was happy to find a local debate that she could attend.

She went to the debate with her sisters, Roberta and Colinda Joe. All three said they entered the debate planning to vote for Nygren, and the debate reaffirmed that.

Roberta and Colinda hope the incoming administration will look at issues impacting Navajo families daily. For instance, the lack of waste management access, fresh food options, and postal services. Roberta said she shouldn’t have to travel to a border town to empty her trash and check her mail. They’re both originally from Birdspring on the Navajo Nation.

Some people may have left the debate knowing who to vote for, but that’s not the case for Erika Badoni. She attended the debate with her mom and felt it didn’t help her make a choice.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” she said. “I was hoping this would help me, but it didn’t.”

Badoni said the candidates talked around the questions throughout the debate, offering no real answers.

“I’m lost,” she said. “I need to go to another debate.”

Badoni has been living in the Phoenix area for more than a decade, and she appreciates the candidates for coming so far to debate.

“I like it when they appeal to the urban (Navajos),” she said, hoping that the candidates talk more about providing resources for Navajos living in the city.

Her mother, Evelyn Yazzie, is from Blue Gap and was visiting Badoni when the debate happened. She voted for Nez four years ago, but said she now plans to vote for Nygren — but hopes that whoever wins will keep their promises.

“It’s all elections, they all say something, but it doesn’t happen that way,” Yazzie said. 

The Navajo Nation general election happens the same day as the Arizona state elections on November 8.

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