Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez addresses the state lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Jan. 12, 2022. Photo courtesy the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President
Watching the threat of a government shutdown and the ousting of the U.S. House Speaker, former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said that is when he knew he had the opportunity to help, prompting him to jump into the race for Arizona’s largest congressional district.
“This dysfunction that’s happening and this far-right contingency is taking the country in the wrong direction and putting folks in a difficult situation because of that divisive politics,” Nez said in an interview with Arizona Mirror.
“Our current congressman is one of those far-right people who are causing some division,” Nez said of Rep. Eli Crane, a Republican who was elected for the first time in 2022.
“We need someone who listens to the people and does not play political games in Washington, D.C.,” Nez said. “We need to get back to representing all of the constituents in District 2.”
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Congressional District 2 covers about 60% of Arizona, and tribal land — including the entirety of the Navajo Nation that Nez led — makes up a large portion of that district.
The district includes 14 tribes in northern, eastern, and central Arizona, and those tribal members make up about 20% of the district’s total population.
Despite that, Nez will face an uphill battle to win in 2024. The current district, which was redrawn in 2021 during the once-a-decade redistricting process, includes heavily GOP Yavapai County, and Republicans have a strong registration advantage as a result. At the time it was created, the GOP had a seven-point edge in District 2.
Nez said that he understands the district will be challenging, but he thinks the voting base is more in the middle rather than leaning too far left or right.
“There are Democrats and Republicans that are struggling every day,” Nez said, adding that no matter what party a leader is affiliated with, their most important task is addressing the needs of their constituents.
“You represent everyone,” he added.
Nez, 48, was born in Tuba City and raised in Shonto, on the Navajo Nation. He has 18 years of public service experience, starting when he was 29 as the vice president of the Shonto Chapter House on the Navajo Nation.
He would go on to serve on the Navajo Nation Council and the Navajo County Board of Supervisors before being elected Navajo Nation vice president in 2015 and then president in 2019, where he led the Navajo people through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nez said that, while serving his people on the Navajo Nation, he built relationships and worked alongside state and federal leaders to help bring resources to the area.
“I think with the network that we established, we were able to work on many of the issues that were pressing to our constituents,” he said.
Utilizing that network alongside his 18 years of public service experience, Nez said it will help him assist the people in Arizona.
“We bring a different approach, a more grassroots approach to help on tackling the tough issues,” Nez said. “We know that this is a very diverse district.”
Some of the critical issues that Nez said he will focus on as part of his campaign include cutting high gas and food costs, creating jobs, expanding access to affordable, quality health care, addressing climate change, expanding opportunities for small businesses, investing in rural communities and supporting individuals serving in the military and veterans.
“I grew up in a rural, low-income home, in a long-overlooked community where my family lived paycheck-to-paycheck (and) worried about how we’d make ends meet,” Nez said in a press release. “I understand the struggles that many Arizona families are facing right now.”
Nez lives in Flagstaff with his wife, Phefelia, and their sons, Christopher and Alexander. Nez is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, and his clans are Ashįįhí (Salt People), born for Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle clan). His maternal grandfather’s clan is Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan), and his paternal grandfather’s clan is Táchii’nii (Red-Running-Into-The-Water Clan).
“Eighteen years of public service, and I’m willing to serve,” Nez said. “If I can still help out in any way, sign me up, and I’m signed up to run and win this congressional seat.”
Native American candidates have been elected into the U.S. House of Representatives before, but none have ever come from Arizona.
In 2022, a Native American, an Alaska Native and a Native Hawaiian were all sworn in as members of the House, fully representing the United States’ Indigenous people for the first time.
There are currently six representatives serving in the 117th Congress, but there are also two non-voting delegates, according to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Arizona Native Voter Executive Director Jaynie Parrish has worked in raising awareness about voting among Indigenous communities within Arizona for several years, and she believes that Nez’s candidacy will bring some much-needed light to the congressional seat among Native voters within the district.
“I’m always supportive to see more Native candidates running in our state,” Parrish said. “I think we honestly should have more.”
Arizona Native Vote is a grassroots organization that works to increase civic engagement and election participation in tribal and rural communities, their website states.
Parrish said Indigenous candidates running is half the battle, and it’s nice to see more Native candidates putting themselves out there, especially in a big congressional race.
“His run will really help amplify what the Congressional District 2 office is, what it can do (and) what it can be,” Parrish said. She said she looks forward to the voter education to come, mainly because it is such a challenging district after redistricting.
From that redistricting, Parrish said that Native voters have to work much harder to get and vote for a candidate of their choice, but it’s not impossible.
“We haven’t had the support and the galvanization that we should have, not only from Native voters but from non-Native voters, to see Native candidates as not only qualified but ready to do the job,” Parrish said. “I’m hoping that this does galvanize and get people interested.”
“I always had hoped that this congressional district would be won by a Native candidate,” Parrish added, and she hopes someday a Native woman will take the same chance and run.
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