FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Louva Dahozy sat in the front of a crowded casino ballroom listening to a record number of candidates for Navajo Nation president outline plans for economic development, services for the elderly and veterans, government reform and infrastructure.
"Same old thing every four years, nothing changed," said the 90-year-old Navajo woman.
Still, she sees opportunity to reinvigorate Navajo culture and language, bring more gas stations and clothing stores to the country's largest American Indian reservation, and ensure money isn't lost to towns that border it in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
"The people out there need all they can," she said.
Voters will have a record number of candidates to choose from in Tuesday's presidential primary election. The race drew 18 candidates, including current President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and others who have held elected office. Three women are in the field, which includes some political newcomers. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election and pick their own running mates in the non-partisan race.
More than 93,000 Navajos are registered to vote, down almost 18,000 from the last presidential primary. Turnout then was nearly 47 percent.
The tribe's election office generally removes voters from the rolls in odd years if they don't cast ballots in two consecutive elections. The purge took place earlier this year because it hadn't been done as scheduled, election officials said. Not all those removed re-registered.
The candidates must cater to what generally is the largest voting block of elderly Navajos who speak Navajo fluently and maintain traditional lifestyles, and younger Navajos who have spent time off the reservation.
After a recent presidential forum at the tribe's casino east of Flagstaff, 17-year-old Ednei Yabeny quizzed the candidates with a list of his own questions. He wanted their thoughts on a broader social movement on violence against Native women, and on scholarship requirements tied to the Navajo language.
Candidates have been booed and cheered when they don't speak in Navajo at the handful of presidential forums. Tribal lawmakers shifted the burden of determining fluency to voters, rather than the courts, after the last presidential election when it became a central issue.
"I think we need to move on, not forget our language," Yabeny said. "They encourage youth to come back to the reservation but because of the language barriers, I don't feel like I can come back."
Jerry Williams, president of the tribe's LeChee Chapter on the Arizona-Utah border, said his community often turns away businesses because it doesn't have the infrastructure to support them. The community will be among the hardest hit if the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station closes at the end of 2019, and the tribe will lose about one-fifth of its revenue.
"That's my deciding vote, who is going to say 'we will help you help yourself,'" he said.
Candidates must travel the vast 27,000 square-mile reservation for rallies and community meetings to campaign. To reach voters many use a mix of radio and newspaper advertising, billboards, signs and social media.
Begaye, who served four years as a tribal lawmaker before winning the presidency against Joe Shirley Jr., has done little of that in his bid for re-election.
"I'm busy running the nation," he said in a statement.
Nez distanced himself from Begaye months ago. The former tribal lawmaker and Navajo County supervisor made healthy living a focus in his time as vice president. He's been organizing 5k races and walks to raise funds for his presidential campaign.
Shirley, a former two-term president, and his colleague on the Apache County Board of Supervisors, Alton Joe Shepherd of Ganado, Arizona, tout experience. Others who have held elected office are former Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim of Rock Point, Arizona; tribal lawmaker Tom Chee of Shiprock, New Mexico; and former lawmaker Hope MacDonald LoneTree of Tuba City, Arizona.
The other candidates from Arizona are Benny Bahe of Houck; Norman Patrick Brown, an activist from Chinle; Kevin Cody of Pinon; Trudie Jackson, a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico from Teec Nos Pos; Calvin Lee Jr., an attorney from Greasewood Springs; Shawn Redd, a businessman from Dilkon; Nick Taylor, a finance associate from Klagetoh; Tom Tso, a former Navajo chief justice from Teec Nos Pos; and Vincent Yazzie, an activist from Tolani Lake.
The other candidates from New Mexico are Emily Ellison, a job development officer for the University of New Mexico from Chilchitah, and Dineh Benally of Shiprock, who worked as a civil engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and was Shirley's running mate in the last election.