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Could Arizona elect an Indigenous candidate for Congress in 2024?

Could Arizona elect an Indigenous candidate for Congress in 2024?

  • President Jonathan Nez (center), his Chief of Staff Paulson Chaco (left) and First Lady Perphelia Nez (right) take notes during discussions following the State of the Nation address at the Navajo Nation Council on Oct. 21, 2019.
    Navajo Nation Council Office of the SpeakerPresident Jonathan Nez (center), his Chief of Staff Paulson Chaco (left) and First Lady Perphelia Nez (right) take notes during discussions following the State of the Nation address at the Navajo Nation Council on Oct. 21, 2019.

For more than two decades, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has held public office. From vice-president of Shonto Chapter to a Navajo county supervisor and finally as president of what he called the largest Indigenous nation in the country.

Although he was voted out of his latter position in November, Nez continues to move forward, finishing the final weeks of his presidential term with focus.

“I'm still the president and I'm going to finish out some of the priorities that we have, that we didn't get to, until January 10,” Nez told ICT. “Then, I think we'll look at other opportunities that come our way.”

Nez didn’t win his reelection to serve a second term as president, by a small margin, he noted. His opponent Buu Van Nygren won by 3,551 votes.

The Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation go back and forth having the highest population of citizens, according to both tribes’ enrollment numbers.

In his last few months as president, Nez was a panelist at the White House Tribal Nations Summit, an invited guest to the State Dinner, a plus one for his wife Phefelia Nez for the 43rd Kennedy Center Honorees dinner, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s been a busy time for the career politician.

Looking into the future, he’s thought about going back to school and spending more time with his family. But Nez, 47, has many doors open to him now. He said he is going to think about and pray on what is a best fit for him and his family.

He is keeping all options open, including a possible run for Congress in Arizona’s District 2. “Of course, you keep your options open, you never say no to anything,” he said.

Eli Crane, a very conservative candidate who has never held office, won over three-term Democratic representative Tom O’Halleran in the newly redrawn district.

“There's just a different party that's in control in terms of votes for that district,” Nez said. “I hate to say it, but it's going to be very difficult for any Democrat to run for that position. Unless there's a change in the election.”

Ranked-choice voting or an open-primary system could lend an advantage for a Democratic candidate to win in Arizona Congressional District 2 but unless that happens, Nez thinks it would be very difficult to turn that seat blue in 2024.

But others have a more optimistic view of the district.

Arizona has never elected an Indigenous person to Congress. The state is home to the 22 federally-recognized tribes that have always lived on those lands and they currently control 2.8 millions acres. Arizona is within the bounds of the largest part of the Navajo Nation. In Congressional District 2, there are 14 Native nations who account for some 20 percent of the population.

The demographics of Congressional District 2 lends itself to the possibility of electing the first Indigenous person to represent Arizona in Congress in 2024. Especially with a Republican contender, Crane, who is going to represent constituents from 14 Indigenous nations come Jan. 3 but has not visited any of the nations to the knowledge of Missa Foy, chair for the Navajo County Democrats.

Crane’s platform includes “defeating cancel culture,” election integrity, border security and “No vaccine mandates, no lockdowns, no tyranny.” He was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Crane also apparently doesn’t live in the district he was elected to represent.

“We don't think that he's going to put forth policy that is going to win over voters in our communities in Northeastern Arizona,” Foy said. “We think that he is going to just pursue some of this silliness the current Republican Party is pursuing. The endless investigations and not being a serious policy maker and not doing serious governance.”

For many years, Foy has been working on the grounds to get out Native voters across Northeastern Arizona. Navajo County Democrats also coordinate with Apache County. Crane’s apparent lack of interest in working with tribes could work to advance an Indigneous candidate.

“I think there's our first opportunity to pick up some votes in this gerrymander district. The district was pulled seven points to the right and Tom (O’Halleran) lost by exactly seven points,” Foy said. “We held the line and got out as many voters as we possibly could. That says a lot for our program considering statewide voter turnout was down. However, in our communities, in Northeastern Arizona, Navajo and Apache counties were the only two counties in the entire state where voter turnout was actually higher.”

In the next election, which will include the presidential race, this number will likely be higher.

“Once you take a non-midterm voter and they become a midterm voter, then we know they have built a habit of voting and that they will continue to be voters throughout their lives,” Foy said.

With two more years of year-round voter organizing that could galvanize the Native vote, who are 80 percent Democrats, executive director for Navajo County Democrats, Jaynie Parrish, Navajo, would like to see an Indigenous woman run for that seat.

“We're just like, 'Who would it be? Who would be that person that would be like a Sharice (Davids) for Arizona in our area?'" she said.

U.S. Reps. Sharice Davids in Kansas and Mary Peltola in Alaska are examples that Indigenous candidates can win in these slightly more conservative districts. It just takes the right candidate, and lots of organizing, Parrish and Foy said.

“I think we still have a good shot. I'm still in the personal preference if the candidate is a Native woman to be in that congressional seat,” Parrish said. “That's what I'm still hoping for and what I'm working for. I just don't know who that is yet.”

This report was first published by ICT.

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