Congressional candidates make the case for Navajo votes

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 19, 2012

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N avajos voters have a chance to make history this year, candidate Wenona Benally Baldenegro told the Navajo Nation Council on Monday. For the first time, they can send one of their own to Congress.

If she survives the Aug. 28 Democratic primary and is elected to represent Arizona Congressional District 1, Baldenegro would be the first Native American woman to represent Arizona, or indeed any state, in Congress.

But two of her non-Native opponents, who also presented their platforms to the council at its Monday meeting, were quick to bring up their own Navajo connections.

The newly redrawn CD1 encompasses Apache, Navajo, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Pima, Pinal and Yavapai counties. Incumbent Paul Gosar has moved from Flagstaff to Prescott and is running in CD4, leaving the District 1 seat open to new blood.

After earning a law degree from Harvard University, paid in part by tribal scholarships, Baldenegro said she knew she would return home to help her people.

"I came back," she said. "I came back home because I was raised to believe that you invested in my future."

With Navajos making up 21 percent of the vote in CD1, Baldenegro said it is time for someone from the tribe to stand up for Navajo issues.

"I am dispelling the myth that someone like me cannot win this race," she said.

Baldenegro is married to Salomon F. Baldenegro, and her in-laws are active in the Mexican-American community and civil rights issues.

Listening to their stories and considering her own experience, she decided to throw her name into the Congressional race.

If elected, she said, her job is to support the opinions of the people.

"Their concerns are my concerns," she said.

Candidate Ann Kirkpatrick, another Democrat, is a familiar face to the council. She visited the council when she represented CD1 from 2009 to 2011. She continued to drop by after Gosar defeated her in the 2010 race.

During her service, Kirkpatrick said, she introduced the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act - an overhaul of the Indian Health Service that was included in the Affordable Health Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld last month.

Kirkpatrick said if elected she would continue to defend the Affordable Health Care Act against critics, mainly Republicans, that have tried more than 30 times to repeal it.

Baldenegro too, mentioned the health care law, saying she worked on reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act 10 years before Kirkpatrick cosponsored it in 2009.

While in Congress, Kirkpatrick also brought U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and a delegation from Washington to Window Rock for a public hearing about the Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act, she said.

"I will continue to push for those hearings here on Navajo," she said. "I will be your champion."

Kirkpatrick's other objectives are to prevent uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, secure resources and assistance for areas impacted by the former Bennett Freeze, secure a five-year reauthorization of the Indian school bus route maintenance program, and help build a museum to honor the Navajo Code Talkers.

Republican Jonathan Paton, who has represented Tucson in the Arizona State Legislature since 2004, said his mother was a teacher in Tuba City in the 1950s and then taught on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

An Army Reservist and Iraq War veteran, Paton called it a "scandal" that Navajo veterans lack access to housing or health care. (They qualify for care from IHS but the nearest Veteran's Administration facilities offering specialized care for war injuries are in Prescott, Ariz., and Albuquerque.)

Paton said he paid a visit to the veterans' cemetery in Fort Defiance and saw the headstones reflecting dates from World War II to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I know what your issues are because I've experienced them," he said. "Congress can do better and I'm running for this seat because I want to live up to the values and freedom that those men and women set for me."

Paton also voiced support for renewable energy and small business development, along with promising to try to bring infrastructure projects, such as roads and public safety facilities, to tribal lands.

Paton also said education is a key issue for him.

"The bottom line is that we can do better and we should do better" when it comes to educating children, he told the council.

Not appearing beforecCouncil were Paton's three Republican challengers, Patrick Gatti, Gaither Martin and Doug Wade, and write-in Libertarian candidate Kim Allen.

Arizona voters must be registered by party in order to vote in their party's primary.

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