ROCK POINT -- Ernest Harry Begay, former chief of staff for former Navajo President Albert Hale, announced Feb. 26 that he is running for Navajo president.
The primary election is in September and the general election is in November. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has not decided yet whether he will seek re-election.
In Begay's announcement, he criticized President Shirley as not working well with the Navajo Tribal Council or being a good leader, but the communications director for the president said Begay's portrayal of Shirley is not accurate.
Begay was particularly critical of President Shirley on the bond issue saying that the president hasn't had a plan, merely a list of things he hopes to accomplish. The bond proposal would fund many projects through selling millions of dollars in bonds.
"The president needs to show more leadership skills,"
Begay said. "If you talk about a bond issue then you have to put together a plan and not just have a project listing."
George Hardeen, communications director for President Shirley, said the president has an extensive plan for the bond proposal. He said the plan is 45 pages in 6-point type.
"President Shirley has had a plan since 10 months after he became president," Hardeen said. "It's been in the newspapers and I don't know why somebody would say he doesn't have a plan."
Begay, who currently works as the traditional coordinator for the Navajo Department of Behavioral Services in alcohol and drug treatment, said if he was Navajo president he would talk to each council delegate at his office over coffee to start a dialogue.
"It's the art of compromise, although it's not happening now even though the council is ready to work with the president," he said. "People are asking what's happening with all the promises of housing, jobs, education and government reform."
Begay said President Shirley should have led on education issues, but instead left the education issues to the Navajo Tribal Council's Education Committee.
Hardeen responded that President Shirley has led on the education issue by working closely with the Navajo Council's Education Committee.
"The Education Committee confirmed President Shirley's appointment to the new Navajo Education Board," he said.
Hardeen said Navajos have talked about creating an education code for 30 years, but it didn't happen until now. He said it just happened because of the president's collaboration with the education committee.
"Education is his (Shirley's) top priority," Hardeen said. "The president never misses an opportunity to talk about education and meet with educators. When President Shirley is in his office he takes time out to meet with touring students whether they are from grade school or college."
Begay said President Shirley could also do a better job working with the local chapters.
"The president has to support chapter resolutions. His job is to talk with chapter presidents and chapter delegates. If something doesn't fit the tribal code then he needs to compromise and work it out rather than just saying no," he said.
Begay said he was referring to Shiprock's attempt to have gambling placed in their chapter.
Hardeen said this is not the case in general or in Shiprock. He said the local chapters always welcome the president warmly and his relationship with local chapters is excellent.
"I can't think of one example of a chapter official who said they can't work with President Shirley," he said.
Hardeen added that President Shirley has met with Shiprock officials more than any other chapter. He said Navajo law is that the Navajo Nation will sign any contract with any developer for gaming pacts. He said some chapters want to go ahead and do that on their own, but that existing law does not allow for that.
Hardeen noted that President Shirley also worked closely with Shiprock on banning uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation.
Hardeen said Begay's portrayal of President Shirley, as someone who doesn't get along with council members or local chapter officials is not accurate.
"I'm surprised to hear that because it's not my reality," he said.
Begay said President Shirley is a good man who would work well at the state or congressional level.
"But Navajo is its own flavor. I think it's time for new leadership, new ideas, and a new approach," he said.
Begay said he would make a strong president because he has 12 years of administrative and management experience in all three branches of the Navajo government.
He emphasized that as a former chief of staff to Hale that he will know what he's doing from the first day he takes office.
"I won't need on-the-job training," he said. "It's why my campaign will focus on team work and leadership--not on the faults of others, but on how I can improve the strengths of others. The Navajo people can do better than what has been done in the past few years if we seek answers with roots in ke'."
Begay explains ke' as the clan system and proper kinship which calls for people to have respect for each other in the spirit of family.
Begay said the opposite of ke' is a dysfunctional family that does not get along such as the president's office and the tribal council.
Begay blames most of the dysfunction on the president's office.
"Our president and council are right across the road from each other. Don't you think that's close enough for them to get along with each other?" he asked.
Hardeen said this portrayal is also inaccurate. He noted that the Navajo Budget and Finance Committee recently praised Shirley's veto of a budget item.
"There is a constant ebb and flow between the president and the tribal council. They visit every week," he said.
Hardeen noted that the president gives a State of the Nation speech at the opening of the council session each year.
"Then he takes questions and he answers them until they're out of questions," he said. "I don't know what yardstick he (Begay) is using. Council delegates haven't called to complain (about the lack of communication)."
Begay noted an old African saying, "When the elephant's fight, it's the mice that gets trampled."
He said that this is pertinent here because when the president and council fight it's the people who get trampled.
Begay said he would be a strong president because of his diplomacy.
"I get along with people and I talk with people. I'm polite and easy going. I always have a smile on my face, which I inherited from my grandpa," he said.
Begay said he believes in shared government.
"That's the key to everything," he said. Begay said fiscal responsibility is an important part of government. He said the tribe needs a deficit fund and emergency fund.
"Right now they use the Undesignated Reserve fund for everything, and that's not how we should do business," he said.
Begay, who refers to the Navajo people as Lords of the Soil, said Navajos need to protect Mother Earth including the water, the air and the light.
"These lands are the soul of the people and we need to visit our neighboring states and American officials to explain the meaning our land has for the people," he said.
Begay said if the outside world understood Navajos better than they would be more sensitive to them on issues such as the San Francisco Peaks.
Begay said Navajos need a president who can teach the American people and the young Navajo generation about the sacred nature of the four sacred mountains, sacred rivers and culture in order to understand Navajo sovereignty.
Begay said the Treaty of 1868 requires the federal government to provide education, health, economic development and other services for the Navajo people.
He said this is a critical issue at this time because of pending budget cuts from the Bush administration.
Begay said Navajo elders should be preserved and protected.
"Our Dine elders are the foundation of who we are as
Dine for they carry on our culture and language. They are the nourishment that makes us who we are today," he said.
Begay said Dine elders need to have their independence and their dignity. He praised Navajo Nation employees for their performance, results and accountability.
Begay praised the Navajo Code Talkers and today's Navajos who continue to serve in America's armed forces. He said Navajo veterans must be honored.
Begay, a graduate of Ft. Lewis College, taught at Rough Rock High School for eight years. He was also an administrator there and he worked as a district manager for Apache County.
Begay has been a tribal council delegate, and served on the Dine College Board of Regents, Rock Point Community School Board and the National Head Start Association.
Begay, 48, has been married to Janice Clara Begay for 24 years. They have three children.
(Stan Bindell, former Observer editor, is journalism and radio teacher at Hopi High School.)
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