Lynda Lovejoy might just become the first female president of the Navajo Nation. Her candidacy — and her surprising second-place finish in the Aug. 8 primary — have certainly piqued the interest of observers.
Incumbent Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. came in first in the primary, with 28 percent of the vote, out of 10 candidates. The odds were on Frank Dayish Jr., currently tribal vice president, to finish second — or, if not Dayish, then Ernest Harry Begay of Rock Point, a former chief of staff for the president’s office.
But Lovejoy, seemingly a dark horse, finished with 22 percent of the vote, roughly 2,000 fewer votes than Shirley. Dayish was third with 17 percent. (Only the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.) Shirley told reporters that Lovejoy’s finish was “a total surprise.”
A little research revealed that there was to be a ceremony at Lovejoy’s Shiprock campaign headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 16. It was a perfect day for a ride. There had been rain , and when there’s rain in the desert all of the plants say thanks, and there’s a certain mysterious magic in the air.
The event was scheduled from 11:30 to 2. I got there at 1, and I was right on time. I’d stopped at the “Chat and Chew,” a little homemade fast-food place that sits under a big cottonwood tree on the highway to Farmington, for directions. The folks at the Chat and Chew are always friendly. They helped me out.
Lovejoy’s Shiprock campaign headquarters sits on the top of a hill on Highway 64, the Shiprock-to- Farmington highway. It’s an old abandoned gas station that they’d fixed up and painted.
I’ll say this for Mrs. Lovejoy’s team: They are organized. There was a big sign that said “Lynda Lovejoy for Navajo Nation President,” a bunch of cars in the parking lot, people in folding chairs listening to one of the speakers. The wind blew without pause.
I settled in to wait. An awning was set up with banners and flags, and a microphone. Off to one side a couple of young guys formed what appeared to be a band of sorts — a Navajo reservation garage band, I suspected, and I was right.
Lovejoy returned with her husband, John, walked through the small crowd, shaking hands with everyone, and took her place beneath the awning. The speeches continued, in both Navajo and English.
She’s the mother of eight children, grandmother to seven. She spent 10 years in the New Mexico state legislature; she’s the only Native American commissioner on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. She hails from Crownpoint. Those are the bare bones.
I wish I’d counted the number of speeches — there were a slew of them. At last Lovejoy spoke and I listened attentively, even though she spoke in a mixture of Navajo and English and I only caught parts of it.
Lovejoy’s son, Russell Morgan, a nutritionist in Crown Point, was instrumental in my getting the interview. At the end of her speech, he brought her to meet me. The garage band lit up. They were loud: electric guitar and drums.
Lovejoy, her husband, and her son accompanied me inside. Even though a cinder-block wall separated us from the garage band, it sounded as though they were in the room with us. As I began my questioning the guitarist launched into an imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” It was awful. Our nerves were frazzled by the end of the interview.
“What do you think your biggest challenge is going to be?” I asked.
“Probably the biggest challenge will be bringing people together and moving toward a democratic form of government, so that we can instill confidence in the people so that they can feel ownership of their government,” Lovejoy replied.
I asked her what she hoped to accomplish in the first 100 days.
“We hope to introduce some draft legislation in the council that will reduce some of the barriers to small business,” she said. Lovejoy has made economic development one of her priorities. “We want to create streamlining approval processes for small-business applications.”
I asked if she knew Richard Mike. She said she did. Mike, an astute businessman from Kayenta, was instrumental in helping the city to become incorporated. In just a few years it went from a windy, dirty reservation town on Highway 160 to a showcase of Navajo possibilities. The town passed a sales tax, installed wider highways with sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and encouraged a number of new businesses to open along the busy tourist corridor.
“That’s the kind of local control and local ownership, local self-sufficiency, we need to encourage,” Lovejoy said.
She would like to see a Navajo Nation bank that would approve loans to small businesses. “Because of the structure of land-use agreements on the Navajo Nation it’s difficult for small businesses to borrow money,” she said.
“We have home-site leases and business leases between individuals and the tribe, but banks want not only the buildings as collateral, but the land that the business sits on as well. With current banking regulations this is difficult to do; that’s why we need a Navajo Nation bank.”
I asked about gaming. “If you go into the Ute Mountain Ute Casino on Saturday night, what percentage of the people there will be Navajo?” I asked.
“Practically all of them,” she said.
“How do you feel about the new gaming proposals approved by the Navajo Council?” I asked.
“I personally don’t support casinos,” she said, “but the council managed to get it voted in. They manipulated the language, and they manipulated the voting. But it is approved. There is now a Gaming Act, a gaming commission, so they’re pretty well under way.
“There are several chapters, such as Shiprock, who want gaming. I think we ought to control it. If there are going to be casinos we should monitor them closely. If we are going to have casinos, they should be limited to just a few locations. Still, I have questions… How is it going to be funded? How is it going to be managed?”
“What do you think the critical needs are in education? I asked.
“I think we need to establish better relations with the public schools and even the contract schools. We need to have courses in Navajo history and language.”
I’m not familiar with all of the issues on the Navajo Reservation, but I have noticed some problems and inequities: the lack of certified Navajo teachers and health-care workers, the need for educational institutions suited for the needs of the Navajo people; better education for Navajo students, improvements in housing, roads, utilities, and economic opportunities.
The Lovejoy-Shirley contest is heating up. Shirley, 58, is seeking his second term in office. A supporter of the controversial Desert Rock Power Plant proposal, which would put a 1,500- megawatt coal-fired plant on the reservation south of Kirtland, N.M., he also supports gaming.
Shirley has been credited with helping eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the business-site leasing process, an achievement that may sound obscure but that means proposed businesses no longer have to wait up to three years to get site approval on the reservation.
Shirley’s office has charged in a press release that Lovejoy has no platform and no experience suitable for running the Navajo Nation.
However, Shirley’s campaign recently took a hit when Calvert Garcia, who heads his re-election effort in the northern Navajo area, recently admitted to stealing more than $21,000 in a check-cashing scheme while he was president of the Nageezi Chapter and a member of Shirley’s executive staff. Garcia, of Bloomfield, N.M., has agreed to repay the money.
Some traditionalists have argued that having a woman as tribal president would violate Navajo culture. Other Navajos say they are excited by the prospect. (The neighboring Ute Mountain Ute tribe had a woman, Judy Knight-Frank, as chair for many years.) Is Lovejoy capable of providing the kind of leadership that will improve the Navajo Nation? Is gender really an issue? The Navajo voters will decide that Nov. 7.