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Navajo presidential race draws 19 candidates

The race to become president on the country’s largest American Indian reservation has drawn a record number of candidates with 19 filing for the office.

The Navajo Nation field includes tribal President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, three women, and others who have previously held or sought the tribe’s top two elected positions.

The number is up from 17 four years ago, when a tumultuous election season was extended by nearly five months because of a heated court fight over a candidate’s ability to speak fluent Navajo. That qualification loosely remains because it will be up to voters to decide whether that matters to them.

Candidates regularly promise to improve the tribe’s economy, increase government transparency, secure water rights and deliver basic services. A new challenge will be dealing with declining revenue as roughly one-third of the tribe’s budget is at stake if a coal-fired power plant on the reservation shuts down as planned next year.

One candidate is pushing hemp farms, another wants to build on efforts to designate the tribe as a Medicaid provider, some want to revisit the tribe’s ban on gay marriage, and others are promoting accountability and vowing to combat nepotism.

Begaye’s office has been criticized recently for placing his daughter and chief legal counsel, Karis Begaye, on paid administrative leave rather than firing her after she was suspected of driving while intoxicated and crashing a tribal vehicle. She hasn’t been charged with a crime.

The list of candidates won’t be finalized until after election officials vet the applications over the next two weeks. Candidates also have a chance to challenge each other’s qualifications.

Russell Begaye, who is from Shiprock, advanced in the last election after the second-place finisher, Chris Deschene, was disqualified for failing to prove he was fluent in Navajo. Begaye easily beat out former President Joe Shirley Jr. of Chinle, Ariz., in the general election.

Shirley is running for the office again. His pick for vice president in 2014, Dineh Benally, also is running for president as is Shirley’s colleague on the Apache County Board of Supervisors, Alton Shepherd of Ganado.

The three women in the race are Emily Ellison of Chichiltah, N.M.; Trudie Jackson of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz.; and former tribal lawmaker Hope MacDonald-Lonetree of Tuba City, Ariz., whose father served as tribal chairman for 14 years in the 1970s and 80s.

The top two vote-getters in the August primary choose their own running mates and face off in the Nov. 6 general election.

Most of the candidates are from the Arizona portion of the reservation. They are: Kevin Cody of Pinon, Nick Taylor of Klagetoh, Tom Tso of Teec Nos Pos, Vincent Yazzie of Tolani Lake, Rex Lee Jim of Rock Point, Benny Bahe of Houck, Shawn Redd of Dilkon, Norman Brown of Chinle and Calvin Lee, Jr. of Greasewood Springs.

Those from New Mexico include Tom Chee of Shiprock and Lester Begay of Whiterock.

None are from the Utah side of the reservation.

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