Navajo Nation Presidential candidates Joe Shirley Jr, top photo, and Chris Deschene make their way into the Window Rock Sports Center as their supporters cheer them on.
WINDOW ROCK, ARIZONA — “Eight more years!” was the chant to which a loud and triumphant cadre of Joe Shirley Jr. supporters stormed the Window Rock Sports Center Tuesday night, declaring victory in the Navajo Nation presidential primary election with just a handful of chapters left to report.
They were defying those who had grumbled that Shirley’s previous two terms, 2004-2011, should have been enough and Shirley should step aside and let a younger person take the helm.
And if enough of the 15 ousted candidates’ supporters line up behind the man who will face Shirley in the general election, he may have to do just that.
Christopher Clark Deschene, the 43-year-old attorney and engineer who nabbed a good share of the youth vote, was hot on the veteran politician’s tail with 9,734 votes to Shirley’s 10,910 — a difference of just two percent of the total.
As the rhetoric in the five candidates’ forums presaged, it would appear the general election will be a choice between youthful energy and experience … although some may dispute that.
“The status quo won,” declared Moroni Benally, who came in a distant twelfth of the 17 candidates with 965 votes. “The only difference between Chris Deschene and Joe Shirley is that one is young and one is old.”
Shirley’s supporters, gathered in the cavernous Nakai Hall, anxiously eyed a screen where the vote totals were projected. At first, Deschene had a tenuous lead … but that was because his home turf of Western Agency was the first area to report.
As results trickled in from Central, Eastern and Fort Defiance Agencies, the tide began to turn, and more and more Shirley supporters took to the dance floor to the old-fashioned country sound of the Thunders.
Around 8:30 p.m., with 73 chapters reporting and a solid 8,444 votes in Shirley’s corner, the former president and his wife made a perfectly timed entrance to thunderous applause.
Shirley graciously thanked the crowd, which numbered about 500 by that point, for their votes, and took a turn around the floor with a young supporter, then his wife Vikki, and then a succession of audience members before deciding enough results were in to process with his entourage to the sports center.
“Feeling good,” he said simply when asked for a response to the results.
Not feeling so good was President Ben Shelly, who came in seventh behind Shirley, Deschene, Russell Begaye, Donald Benally, Kenneth Maryboy and Edison Wauneka.
“The people have spoken, as you know,” said Shelly. “I got a lot of projects that would have supplied a lot of jobs, but the people couldn’t see that. My political career ends here.”
Shirley’s assistant campaign manager, Alray Nelson, attributed Shirley’s win to a fairly sophisticated strategy.
For one thing, Shirley’s workers flooded the chapters with 36,000 “palm cards” small enough for voters to take into the booth with them in a pocket to remind them whom to vote for.
For another, they crunched the numbers.
“We looked at the results of the last four elections,” Nelson said, showing a sheet of paper with all the names of the chapters, some highlighted in yellow.
The chapters where Shirley had performed poorly in previous elections got a campaign representative, as did those like Chinle, where Shirley was a shoo-in but the people might get upset if appeared not to try.
“We’re confident we’ll do well in all 110 chapters,” Nelson said before the results started to roll, and other than Western, that turned out to be true.
Now the task at hand for both Shirley and Deschene will be to lure the failed candidates’ followers into their respective camps.
That might not be so easy.
“I’m frustrated,” said Graham Biyaal, the founder of the Northern Diné Youth Committee and a staunch supporter of Moroni Benally. “I’m not looking forward to either a Shirley or a Deschene presidency. If there should be a write-in candidate, that’s who I’ll vote for.”
UNOFFICIAL RESULTS HERE »
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Navajo Times on August 27, 2014. Used with permission. All rights apply.