Navajo Could Make History With Woman President

As polling places open around this country on Nov. 2, for the midterm elections, members of the country's largest Native American tribe — the Navajo nation — will be voting to elect a new Navajo president. And for the first time in the tribe's history, the presidential ballot will feature a woman. New Mexico State Senator Lynda Lovejoy is running for the tribe's highest office against vice president, Ben Shelly. And if she wins, she'll become the first female leader of the 300,000-member Navajo tribe, in modern history. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lynda Lovejoy from the campaign trail.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

On November 2nd, as polling places open around the country for the midterm elections, there is also a presidential election going on for the presidency of the Navajo Nation. That's the country's second largest Native American tribe according to the census. And for the first time in the tribe's history the presidential ballot will feature a woman.

New Mexico State Senator Lynda Lovejoy is running for the tribe's highest office against Vice President Ben Shelly. If she wins, she will become the first female leader of the 300,000-member Navajo tribe. Senator Lovejoy has already broken new ground by becoming the first woman to make it through the primary elections. This is the second time she's done that. But she lost four years ago to the current president.

This time she not only beat out 12 other candidates, she earned more than double the votes of her nearest rival, Ben Shelly. Lynda Lovejoy joins us now from her hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, where she's campaigning. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

State Senator LYNDA LOVEJOY (Democrat, New Mexico): Thank you for having me on your show, appreciate it very much.

MARTIN: Now, Senator Lovejoy, it's curious to some that it's taken so long for a woman to get this far, only because women already serve on the tribal council, which is powerful and it's my understanding that even though there haven't been any elected women leaders to this point, that women are, in the tradition, to be consulted on important matters. So, why do you think it's taken as long as it has?

State Sen. LOVEJOY: Well, here on the reservation and probably in most reservations, you know, we're always lagging behind. Women are primarily, although they may be in the council, the priority for most women at least are just taking care of families. Women are not eager to run for positions like the president, probably never really think about it and they enjoy their seats in the council. They are not that aggressive to climb to the highest office. So that's always kind of been the attitude.

And for me up until four years ago, I too had never thought about running for president. The reason I decided to think about running for president was because of the number of years I've served in the state public service. And having had all of that experience behind me and building up my confidence, I began thinking about running for president four years ago. Prior to that I never had that notion. And so, it's still a brand new phenomenon for a Navajo woman to have gone as far as I have gone.

And two weeks of election, people basically, the more they think about it and really take a second hard look at - it's not threatening for a woman to be a president. In fact, a woman president can basically bring a real motherly, nurturing approach.

MARTIN: You know, I just wanted to ask a little bit more about this - some of the challenges you faced on the campaign trail. And, you know, I think it is fair to note that some of the challenges you faced are not unique to the Navajo Nation.

And I think many people will remember when Senator Hillary Clinton was running for the presidency, was running for the Democratic nomination, that she was greeted on the campaign trail by some remarks that many people considered sexist. Like a group of young men at some point yelling, iron my shirt, at her. So it's not as though this is unheard of in other communities.

But I was reading some of the coverage of your race and I was reading about an incident where you were at some kind of a public event, at a parade, and that a woman said to you, you know, women belong in the kitchen.

State Sen. LOVEJOY: Right.

MARTIN: So, I wanted to know how widespread has been that attitude.

State Sen. LOVEJOY: For many Navajos, including our many traditional people, they've come to accept the fact that, okay, let's give this woman a try. But there are also naysayers out there. And especially, as I said, unfortunately women, yes, the last parade which was way up in Tuba City, Arizona, the western part of Arizona, people making comments the same way. But it's one out of maybe 50. So if it's one out of 50, that's a good number that the 49 are coming to accept the fact that, well, yeah, maybe it's time for a major change here.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, can we just ask, what would be your priorities if elected?

State Sen. LOVEJOY: Well, we basically need to pay attention to the very core of our livelihood, which is build infrastructure for our people. We still have many of our people, especially rural people, who are living without electricity, without decent roads, without running water to their homes. And every four years, so many promises have been made and yet in the year 2010, we still have people living in the third world country lifestyle, and we can't have that. We cannot continue to live that way. We've got to start paying attention to the basic things that our people want.

And people are still living in substandard homes. People are still living without a home. Those are the basic necessities that people just - that's all they want.

MARTIN: We will be following the rest of the campaign closely and we appreciate your taking the time. New Mexico State Senator Lynda Lovejoy is running for the presidency of the Navajo Nation. She is considered the frontrunner and the balloting is November 2nd. She was kind enough to join us from Gallup, New Mexico, where she is campaigning. State Senator Lovejoy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

State Sen. LOVEJOY: Thank you very much.

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