FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Russell Begaye easily beat a former two-term Navajo Nation president for the top post on the country's largest American Indian reservation, ending a tumultuous election season that was extended by nearly five months amid a heated court fight over a candidate's ability to speak fluent Navajo.
Begaye led Joe Shirley Jr. by about 10,000 votes with all precincts reporting late Tuesday, according to unofficial results. Begaye's supporters waved signs and cheered as results broadcast from a sports arena in the tribal capital of Window Rock showed his lead widening throughout the night.
Begaye, a businessman who served four years on the Navajo Nation Council, congratulated Shirley on his accomplishments as president and on his campaign. Among Begaye's plans as president are setting up manufacturing facilities to create jobs, entice businesses to the reservation where half the workforce is unemployed, and address the lack of electricity, running water and infrastructure.
"To me, it's new leadership, absolutely," Begaye told The Associated Press. "Across the board, people wanted a new leader. They didn't want to be stuck in the same rut. They wanted to move forward and they just see a perpetual no advancement on the nation with unemployment."
Earlier in the day, voting sites were bustling with people and full of traditional food and conversation about who would be the next leader. Tuesday's election results are unofficial until the tallies called in by precincts are checked against data from electronic vote counters and challenged votes, which are similar to provisional ballots, are resolved.
Begaye chose Jonathan Nez, a tribal lawmaker, as his running mate. They will replace Ben Shelly and Rex Lee Jim, whose terms were extended while the election chaos was sorted out.
Overall turnout for Tuesday's election that also featured races for the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors was about 37 percent of the nearly 120,600 registered voters but slightly lower for the president's race alone, election officials said. Turnout for the tribe's 2010 general election hit nearly 58 percent.
Voter Brian Lee, 47, of Shiprock, New Mexico, said he was impressed by Begay's business sense.
"He knows how to maneuver government policies in order to build business," Lee said. "And I know that's something that's been an inhibitor to tribal governments, trying to bring entrepreneurs to the nation."
Shirley served two terms as Navajo Nation president, leaving the office in 2011. The tribe's Supreme Court shot down Shirley's attempt to run for a third consecutive term but said he could sit out four years and run again. His priority was government reform, building on a successful initiative to reduce the Tribal Council from 88 members to 24 while he was president. He also talked about breaking down barriers to business development and putting in needed infrastructure.
Shirley, an Apache County supervisor, said the results were not what he expected but expressed appreciation to Navajo voters.
"The people have spoken, and that's the way it should be," he said. "We fought for that, we wanted to have an election and now that we have, the numbers are what they are."
Kathryn Watchman, 65, said Shirley's compassion for his community and ability to work with governments beyond the Navajo Nation earned her vote. "He is not afraid of challenges when it comes to issues related to Navajo Nation," she said.
Some Navajos did not vote in a sign of discontent with the presidential race and the candidates. The Navajo Nation does not have write-in option on the ballot.
The presidential contest was fraught with court battles, protests and attempts to switch up election law. It all started when the second-place finisher in the primary, Chris Deschene, was challenged over his ability to speak Navajo. He ultimately was disqualified, and Begaye moved up from third place to the general election.
The tribe's Supreme Court was asked to step in multiple times to enforce an order to remove Deschene from the ballot and to have election officials hold the contest between Shirley and Begaye without further delay. Just Monday, the high court justices overturned a ruling by a lower court to call off the election.