State Senator Lovejoy, Navajo VP Shelly left to contend for Navajo Nation presidency

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) August 2010

The first woman to ever make it through the Navajo Nation’s primary election for president did it again last week and will be facing the tribe’s vice president in the general election.

New Mexico state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy garnered more than twice as many votes as any of the other 11 candidates. She’ll face tribal Vice President Ben Shelly in the Nov. 2 general election but suggested it wouldn’t be much of a race.

“Just look at the results,” said Lovejoy, 61. “In fact, there should not even be a general election. It should just be by acclamation. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves. We’re not wasting our time. We’re ready to work for our people.”

Unofficial results from all 110 precincts showed Lovejoy received 35.7 percent of votes – 17,137 – to Shelly’s 16.2 percent, or 7,763. The top-two candidates represent a rarity in races for the top leadership position with both coming from New Mexico – Lovejoy from Crownpoint and Shelly from Thoreau.

Shelly survived what was a close race for second much of the night with Donald Benally, the president of the tribe’s Shiprock Chapter who served 10 years in federal prison for his role in a 1989 riot in Window Rock.

“I’m happy we’re going to go forward in the general election,” the 63-year-old Shelly said. “I know we’re going to win this.”

Hundreds of people crowded into the Window Rock sports center where election officials announced the results of the first presidential race in the tribe’s history that featured two women.

Supporters of Lovejoy shouted “Lovejoy, Lovejoy,” as she proclaimed the start of a new direction for the Navajo Nation. The vice president’s supporters countered with shouts of “Shelly, Shelly,” saying he would be the one to maintain stability within the government.

With current tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. absent from the race, Navajos will have a new leader for the first time in eight years. Shirley had sought a third consecutive term, but the tribe’s high court ruled the elections office rightfully disqualified him, citing term limits.

Lovejoy fought off traditional assertions during her first run for the office that a woman should not serve as president. She ultimately lost out to Shirley by about 4,500 votes but carried the momentum and supporters from the last race into this one.

A win this time around would make her the first female leader on the country’s largest American Indian reservation, which extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

“I don’t downplay that she’s a woman; I think it’s great, and it’s time for a change,” said Olin Kieyoomia of Tohatchi, N.M., who voted for Lovejoy. “What worse can she do? All the other guys messed up, so let’s try a woman.”

Shelly, a longtime Tribal Council delegate before being chosen as Shirley’s running mate, briefly took over as tribal president last year when tribal lawmakers voted to place Shirley on leave.

He shook up the executive branch by firing Shirley’s chief of staff, whom Shirley brought back on board when the tribe’s Supreme Court ruled the council acted outside its authority in putting Shirley on leave.

More than one-third of the tribe’s 300,000 members were registered to vote, but turnout was lower than expected at nearly 43 percent because of rainy weather conditions.

Candidates were busy courting voters during the day with traditional Navajo foods, such as fry bread and mutton stew, in what largely is a social event on the vast reservation. Navajos who live off the reservation often go back to their communities to vote for local officials, and tribal elders use election day as an opportunity to catch up with old friends.

Rounding out the top five in the president’s race were Tribal Council Delegate Rex Lee Jim and Sharon Clahchischilliage, who most recently headed the Navajo Nation Washington Office.

Navajos also narrowed down a pool of about 145 candidates for the Tribal Council. The top two vote-getters in each of 24 legislative districts move on to the general election.