A former two-term Navajo president seeking to recapture the office was forced to pick another vice presidential candidate Tuesday after discovering his earlier choice wasn’t eligible because he isn’t registered to vote.
Joe Shirley Jr., who left the presidency in 2011, announced the selection of high school principal Peter Deswood III as his running mate at a news conference Tuesday in the tribal capital of Window Rock. A banner behind the lectern already had their names printed on it.
But as the deadline neared for Shirley to record his choice with the tribe’s election office, officials told the campaign Deswood was listed as an inactive voter. He last registered in 2015 but was purged from the voter rolls because he did not cast a ballot in the last two consecutive major elections as required by tribal law, said Murray Lee of the election office. The purge affected more than 55,000 voters, not all of whom reregistered.
Shirley later chose Buu Van Nygren, a 31-year-old operations trainer for a national construction company who is from the Utah portion of the reservation, as his running mate.
Nygren has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona State University. Nygren said he understands the needs of the youth because he’s a recent college graduate, and the elderly because he grew up without running water or electricity and speaks fluent Navajo.
“My biggest strength is being able to work with people, understand people and go out in the community, being able to communicate with elders and youth,” he said. “My biggest struggle was being a Utah, northern representative.”
Shirley, of Chinle, Arizona, faces current Vice President Jonathan Nez in the Nov. 6 general election. The two beat out 16 others in a record field of candidates to win the primary, with Nez getting more than twice as many votes as Shirley.
The reservation is the country’s largest at 27,000 square miles in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Candidates typically choose a running mate from another state to broaden their voter base.
Nez bucked the tradition in picking Myron Lizer, who runs Ace Hardware stores on the reservation. Both are from Arizona.
Nez credited Lizer for his management skills, and the ability to bring people together and guide Navajos in financial literacy. He called Lizer a “great, bright individual” who can help improve the tribe’s economy among high unemployment.
“You know we’re not a business-friendly nation,” Nez said at a news conference Tuesday in the tribal capital of Window Rock.
Lizer graduated from Window Rock High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He previously worked as an accountant for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. He and his wife, Dottie have three children.
Lizer said he and his wife don’t particularly enjoy the spotlight but “it’s going to be our creator who takes us into these places.”
Nez said he and Lizer would continue campaigning as he did before the primary — visiting communities on and off the reservation and listening to Navajo people.
Deswood said he would support Shirley in the election.
Deswood said he did not recall getting any notification from the tribe’s election office saying his name would be removed from the voter rolls. He said he wasn’t able to make it to his home chapter in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, to vote in the primary election or might have discovered then that he wasn’t registered.
“I feel bad right now about this whole thing because I worked hard to get to this point,” he said.
He later apologized to supporters in a Facebook post for “letting the Navajo people down.
“However, I promise that I will continue to do my part as an informed citizen, voter and educator who is committed to bettering our nation,” he wrote.
Voter registration for the tribe’s general election opens Monday.
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