Navajos elect tribe’s vice president to top post

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) November 2010

Navajos have chosen tribal Vice President Ben Shelly as their next leader, despite both him and his running mate facing criminal charges in a probe of tribal slush funds.

Ben Shelly defeated New Mexico Sen. Lynda Lovejoy in the November 2nd election, becoming the first vice president elected to the tribal presidency and dashing Lovejoy’s hopes of becoming the tribe’s first female president. Shelly had 33,422 votes to Lovejoy’s 29,980 votes with just one precinct outstanding.

Shelly was ahead much of the night – a stark contrast from the primary election when he gained less than half of the votes that Lovejoy did. Shelly picked up endorsements from most of the other primary candidates, and his campaign said the momentum grew.

“I’m very happy,” Shelly said last week with a crowd roaring behind him. “I’ve been campaigning, and this is what I wanted. With the help of the people and their votes, I got it.”

lyndalovejoy2.jpgLovejoy did not concede defeat after the election, and her campaign said she would ask for a recount, partly over reports that some people weren’t able to vote because of a lack of ballots.

“She has the will to go on and she won’t give up,” said campaign spokesman Robert Felson. “She feels that with the present administration, it’s too close.”

The race was Lovejoy’s second bid for the presidency. She lost four years ago to current Navajo president Joe Shirley Jr., who was limited to two consecutive terms in office.

Shelly has said his 16 years as a tribal lawmaker and four years as vice president would ensure stability in the tribal government that has been mired in political conflict. He and Rex Lee Jim will focus on government accountability, creating jobs and education, he said.

He was confident that the conspiracy, fraud and theft charges against him would be dismissed, saying he’s no crook. Criminal complaints allege that Shelly unlawfully took $8,850 in tribal discretionary funds to benefit himself and his family while he served on the Tribal Council. He has pleaded not guilty and said the money was for legitimate hardships. He’s scheduled to be in court again just days after he’s sworn into office.

Jim faces conspiracy and theft charges but has not been arraigned.

Shawnevan Dale, who voted for Shelly, said the outcome of the race was a sign that Navajos still hold strong to tradition that can be interpreted to mean that women should not be president.

Of the criminal charges, he said, “the traditional value is that people do make mistakes but you’re not supposed to criticize people on those mistakes because it could happen to you.”

Tribal member Coda Yazzie said tradition unfortunately was used to wage a campaign against Lovejoy, who he supported. He said the charges against Shelly are an indication of what type of leader he’ll be.

“In my heart, it seems like it’s going to be the same thing, but he can prove me wrong,” said the 25-year-old Yazzie who lives in Dallas.

Lovejoy remains in the New Mexico Legislature. She campaigned for the tribal presidency on a platform of accountability and transparency. She said the Navajo Nation needed fresh ideas and change, which wouldn’t be accomplished by longtime tribal politicians like Shelly.

Shelly briefly served as tribal president last year when the Tribal Council put Shirley on paid leave. The tribe’s court reinstated Shirley after it ruled the council acted outside its authority.

Navajos also voted for lawmakers on a new 24-member Tribal Council on November 2nd. The 88-member council drastically was cut in a special election last December that Shirley spearheaded as a way to reform the government.