- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — The top two leaders of the nation’s largest Indian reservation are pitted against each other in a tense presidential race whose outcome will set the course for a reservation long beset with poverty and unemployment.

With a primary election looming Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and Vice President Frank Dayish Jr. have set up campaign trailers less than a half-mile apart.

But that’s as close as the men, once close allies, get. They don’t talk or work together on tribal issues, and keep separate schedules as they campaign on the 27,000-square-mile reservation that sprawls over parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“They never travel together, and if by chance we happen to show up at the same meeting, it’s coincidental,” Maxine Etter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Dayish, recently told the Associated Press.

“You would think that there would be continuous communication, but it just isn’t working that way right now,” said George Hardeen, Mr. Shirley’s spokesman.

Mr. Shirley, 59, and Mr. Dayish, 47, have refused to discuss the split.

As the incumbent and sitting vice president, the two are widely recognized on the reservation and, election observers say, are among the front-runners to win the primary and could face each other in November.

At stake is oversight of a reservation facing unemployment and poverty, where many of the 250,000 or so residents still live without telephones, electricity or running water. Figures from the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development for 2000 and 2001 showed that about 56 percent of Navajos lived below the poverty level. The unemployment rate was about 44 percent.

Many of the presidential candidates — who include a pastor, a medicine man, a former Arizona state senator, a chapter president, a mechanic and a businessman — say that the needs of the people are not being met, that the 88-member Tribal Council has too much power and that the current administration has failed to keep promises.

Hoping to kindle economic growth, Navajo officials have discussed the tribe’s first casino, which Mr. Dayish and Mr. Shirley both support. The tribe also plans to build a 1,500-megawatt, coal-fired power plant that could be operating by 2010 — another project that both men praise.

Both men tout economic development as crucial and have few major policy differences.

Voters say accountability from tribal officials, education, water rights and health care are among the issues they want the candidates to address.

But voters also want more of a say in how tribal government is run and how funds are allocated, said Norman Ration, an Albuquerque, N.M., resident who grew up on the New Mexico side of the Navajo reservation.

About 96,500 of the tribe’s members are eligible to vote in the primary. Elections officials say they are hopeful turnout will surpass 50 percent.

“They’re concerned about funding for the reservation and how the reservation will continue because some of the resources have been cut,” Mr. Ration said.

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