Few Navajo lawmakers will have incumbent advantage

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) June 2010

Nearly two-thirds of the 88 lawmakers on the Navajo Nation Council are seeking re-election, but hardly anyone will have an incumbent’s advantage.

Navajos voted overwhelmingly last year to cut the size of the Tribal Council from 88 members to 24, which guarantees fewer than half of the 57 lawmakers seeking another term will get one.

Instead, one candidate will be elected from each of the 24 new districts across the vast reservation, representing anywhere from one to eight tribal communities. None of the 145 candidates who met the deadline to file for a council seat is running unopposed.

And all but three of the incumbents – two in the Chinle area and one on the reservation’s western side – face another incumbent.

Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler is the only one of four candidates in the race to represent Tuba City who isn’t already on the council but sees that as an advantage.

“A lot of communities are looking at their council representatives, and it may have got them thinking, ‘What has been done? What has been accomplished?”’ he said. “Those are the kind of issues that will be raised in this election season.”

Notably absent from this year’s race is council Speaker Lawrence Morgan, which means the legislative branch will be under new leadership in January for the first time in eight years. Morgan is leaving office so he can spend more time with his family, said his spokesman, Joshua Lavar Butler.

The top two vote-getters in each district in the Aug. 3 primary election will move on to the Nov. 2 general election.

Council Delegate Harold Wauneka said he was encouraged to seek a fourth term but decided against it. Those elected will have a huge task ahead of them in representing numerous communities whose issues aren’t always similar.

“There’s so many issues that one has to realize, and it’s not going to be that you’re at home watching soap operas,” he said. “You have to be out there almost every hour, every day.”

Delegates elected to districts on the sparsely populated eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico would represent more communities than others. Each delegate ideally would serve 7,100 constituents.

Leonard Tsosie is running in a district with three other incumbents, more than any other district, and the highest number of communities to represent.

“When you have incumbents against each other, the full record will be put before their constituents,” said Tsosie, a former New Mexico state senator who is seeking a second term on the council. “We can no longer be buddy buddy. Now we talk about our individual voting records and whether we were on the side of the Navajo people or not.”

Edmund Yazzie, an incumbent from Thoreau, N.M., faces two other incumbents in the race to represent six eastern Navajo communities, or chapters. He sees running against incumbents as no different from other candidates.

“I guess it’s going based on your inner being, your confidence, and then relying on your support and prayers,” said Yazzie, who plans to push public safety issues if elected to a second term.

Nathan Kilgore Sr. of Kaibeto said he’s making his first run for council because the Navajo people have signaled a desire for change and accountability. He said he would rather the incumbents step aside and allow for a new set of council members than see dozens of them in the race.

“Their umbilical cords are still attached to the old system,” he said. “You’re not going to have open-mindedness, you’re not going to have accountability. It’s like having a bad apple in the basket. You’re going to wind up tarnishing the other apples.”