FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Buu Nygren has ousted Jonathan Nez as president of the Navajo Nation, a position that wields influence nationally because of the size of the tribe’s reservation in the U.S. Southwest and its huge population.
Nygren defeated Nez in the nonpartisan race with a message of delivering basic needs to Navajos and expressing frustration at the pace of tribal government and infrastructure projects. He acknowledged that hard work lies ahead.
“I've said it time and time again, that we want to do the things that are tough,” he said to a rowdy crowd gathered at the fairgrounds in the tribal capital of Window Rock.
Nygren's win, along with his running mate Richelle Montoya, means the Navajo Nation will have a woman in the Office of the President and Vice President for the first time. Navajo voters twice advanced Lynda Lovejoy to the general election for the presidency, but she lost both times.
Unofficial results from the tribe's elections office showed Nygren ahead of Nez by about 3,500 votes with all 110 precincts reporting. Turnout among the roughly 125,000 registered voters surpassed 50%.
Nygren, 35, positioned himself as the candidate for change and as someone who could get the ball rolling on long-awaited projects. He has a background in construction management but has never held political office.
“I’m used to being held accountable in every job,” Nygren, a tribal vice presidential candidate in 2018, said ahead of Tuesday's election. “I’m taking that approach. If I don’t perform, I have no business being here.”
The Navajo Nation’s population of 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It also has the largest land base by far of any tribe at 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) stretching into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Nygren pledged to work more closely with the Navajo Nation Council that often is seen as more powerful than the tribal presidency. Newly elected leaders take office in January. Nygren is married to Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren.
Nez is a seasoned politician who ascended to the presidency after years as a community leader, Navajo County supervisor, Navajo Nation Council delegate and vice president. He encouraged voters to choose continuity in the race, saying progress takes time.
Nez's spokesman, Jared Touchin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night from The Associated Press. Nez and his running mate, Chad Abeyta, gathered in a separate area of the fairgrounds.
Nez said more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding that the tribe has approved for infrastructure projects would help spur economic development and bring home Navajos who have left the reservation for jobs.
Tens of thousands of Navajos still live without running water, electricity and broadband. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted those inequities and thrust the Navajo Nation into the spotlight when it had one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.
The tribe has long relied on revenue from the coal industry to fund its government, but those revenues have been declining as coal-fired plants and mines shut down. While the Navajo Nation owns a stake in one coal plant and some coal mines, it’s been working to develop renewable energy sources.
Tourism also helps fuel the Navajo Nation’s economy. Towering rock formations in Shiprock, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly are international draws for tourists, as is the story of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who developed a World War II code that the Japanese never cracked.