ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Russell Begaye beat Joe Shirley Jr. to become president of the Navajo Nation. Begaye, now the outgoing president, is endorsing Shirley to succeed him.
Begaye announced his endorsement Oct. 29 at one of Shirley's campaign events in Albuquerque. Shirley faces Begaye's vice president, Jonathan Nez, in the Nov. 6 election.
Begaye says Shirley, who left the presidency after two consecutive terms in 2011, has the experience to guide the tribe through an anticipated economic blow when the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah border and its feed mine in Kayenta, Arizona, closes next year.
"We have to step up to the plate," Begaye said. "This is a very, very important election, probably the most important we've ever had on the (Navajo) Nation because of the potential lost revenue."
The closures are expected to reduce the tribe's roughly $175 million budget by one-third.
Shirley said he shares Begaye's vision of transitioning from fossil fuel to generating revenue from high-tech industries. He said the endorsement represents a passing of the torch.
"It comes time to set aside differences," Shirley said.
The tribe's Supreme Court has said Navajos cannot serve more than two consecutive terms but can sit out a term and run again. Shirley has been on the ballot for tribal president five times.
Nez and Begaye distanced themselves months ago as they began campaigning separately for the presidency on the country's largest American Indian reservation. Begaye placed fifth among a record 18 candidates in the primary election.
Nez's campaign manager, Clara Pratte, said she doesn't expect the endorsement to have a major impact because Begaye is not a popular president. She said Nez decided to run for the tribe's top elected post partly because he didn't believe Begaye wasn't open enough with the public.
"He's not a fan of big government, not keeping the doors open and not inviting the media in," Pratte said of Nez.
Begaye also endorsed Democratic candidates running for office in New Mexico — Martin Heinrich for U.S. Senate, Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Lujan for Congress and Michelle Lujan Grisham for governor.