FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – The president of the Navajo Nation was sworn in Tuesday to continue as the tribe’s top leader – even though he badly lost his re-election bid.
That’s because the presidency on the country’s largest Native American reservation is in limbo over an election that hasn’t been scheduled. As a result, Ben Shelly will remain president until the mess gets sorted.
Shelly’s inauguration was low-key and closed to the public and media. He didn’t give a speech or outline priorities for the indefinite time he and Vice President Rex Lee Jim will serve, said his adviser, Deswood Tome.
“He’s going to be the caretaker of the government so there is business as usual,” Tome said. “And all ongoing projects that are already vetted are the ones he’s going to superintend to get some of those completed before he leaves.”
Tribal lawmakers were sworn in during a public ceremony in Fort Defiance that was broadcast live online. Speakers at the event hardly mentioned the presidential election that was thrown into turmoil after Chris Deschene, one of the winners in last August’s primary, was disqualified in a language-fluency case.
Russell Begaye survived a challenge to his qualifications to replace Deschene and face Joe Shirley Jr. in a general election.
The tribe’s high court mandated that the election be held by Jan. 31. But Shelly and lawmakers approved a do-over allowing all previous 17 primary election candidates to face off in a special election in June. The top two vote-getters would move on to the August general election, and the new president would take the oath of office in September.
Tome said Shelly wouldn’t run again, considering his seventh-place finish in the primary.
It’s unclear whether the election will move forward as Shelly and the lawmakers planned. Attorneys for the men who challenged Deschene asked the Navajo Nation Supreme Court late Monday to reaffirm the January election date and hold the elections director and tribal lawmakers who voted for the special election in contempt of court.
Some lawmakers disagree with the high court’s rulings, saying they have disenfranchised thousands of Navajo voters.