Two political elites prevail in Navajo primary melee

Shirley and Deschene pull ahead of 15 other candidates.


Joe Shirley, Jr. and Chris Deschene are the unofficial winners of the Navajo Nation presidential primary held Tuesday; they will face one another in the November 4 election. Shirley, 66, served as Navajo Nation president from 2003 to 2011, the first person to serve two consecutive terms. His successor and current incumbent, Ben Shelly, placed seventh in a crowded field of seventeen candidates. At 43, Deschene was one of the youngest candidates in the primary, but has political and legal experience. He has served as an Arizona state legislator and, as an attorney, was involved in energy projects on the reservation during the Shirley administration.

Slightly less than half of the 114,000 registered voters in Navajo Nation cast votes for the next leader of the 27,000-square-mile reservation — nine candidates were from Arizona, seven from New Mexico, and one from Utah. One is a former school board president with plans to improve the quality of teachers; one is a career copper and coal miner who promotes his expertise in natural resource development. There’s a former boxing champion and Vietnam veteran, a college professor, a retired firefighter, a welder-turned-announcer, a one-armed grassroots activist. The only female on the ballot is a 37-year-old casino executive.

Navajo Nation Presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters in Window Rock as votes are tallied in the Navajo Nation primary elections. Deschene will face Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. in the general election Nov. 4. Donovan Quintero/Navajo Times

Regardless of the winner in November, Navajos can expect an administration intent on taking control of and developing its natural resources, particularly coal. Shirley was an enthusiastic supporter of northern New Mexico’s Desert Rock coal power plant, which failed to appease the EPA and closed in 2009. As an attorney, Deschene also fought for the construction of Desert Rock, and he's long been an advocate for tribal ownership and development of fossil fuels. He was a proponent of the tribe's purchase of the Navajo Mine in northwest New Mexico, which was finalized late last year. These generally pro-coal stances from the top candidates have drawn the ire of Navajo environmentalists and activists, who see little difference between the two, aside from age.

Not all of the candidates are so intent on a coal-heavy future. Duane “Chili” Yazzie (the aforementioned one-armed activist who finished eleventh among the seventeen) was one of the most outspoken opponents of the tribe’s purchase of Navajo Mine. Yazzi’s discontent reflects a growing chasm between "traditionalists" — those who see involvement with coal industry portending serious damages — and the "progressives" who are hoping to profit and convert decades of exploitation from non-Native natural resource businesses into financial self-reliance.

Here are some of the most important and contentious issues for Navajo voters this election:

  • Economic development: A hot-button topic on the reservation, which has an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent. Both Deschene and Shirley plan to cultivate job creation and an economic climate for new and existing businesses to succeed. Deschene has been talking about developing “rural and agricultural” infrastructure; Shirley’s campaign manager says his candidate plans to remove restrictive “red tape” and inefficient bureaucracy, which can inhibit entrepreneurship. 
  • Natural resources: Both candidates are known to advocate for natural resource development on the reservation — especially coal.
  • Culture and language: Shirley, who’s fluent in Navajo, says helping the Nation’s traditional culture thrive should be a “top priority.” Deschene, in turn, promises to help preserve the language in schools and coming-of-age ceremonies for young people. The younger candidate does not speak Navajo, though it’s a requirement of the president according to the Election Administration. Deschene says he’ll pick more up on the campaign trail. 
  • Ethics: The Navajo Nation has a long history of government corruption, and both candidates have been talking up government reform and honest leadership. Deschene has a relatively clean slate in regards to the tribal government. Shirley's time in office, however, is mired in controversy. In 2009, the Tribal Council put him on paid administrative leave after allegations arose over the legality of tribal contracts with a satellite Internet company and a biotech company. Later, prosecutors found no evidence of misconduct.      

Shirley earned an art degree from Magic Valley Christian College in Idaho, a business degree from Abilene Christian University in Texas, and a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University in Tempe. He has worked in social services and has served on the Navajo Nation Council. Come November, Shirley will attempt to enter a third non-consecutive term. He took 10,910 out of 51,300 total votes in the primary.

As for Deschene, who won 9,734 votes, it’s his first go at tribal president; he is a graduate of Arizona State University as well as the Naval Academy in Annapolis and served ten years in the Marine Corps. He “nabbed a good share of the youth vote” in this week’s primaries, according to the Navajo Times. The other candidates and their supporters will now be asked to choose which leader to cast their vote for this fall.

Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Chris Deschene once served as an attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which is not true. Deschene did once serve as attorney for the Dine Power Authority. The story has been corrected. 

High Country News Classifieds