The result was Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. The sprawling rural district bears a strong resemblance to the district it replaced, but with a few key changes that united more of Arizona’s 21 tribal communities and increased the portion of Native Americans in the district to 24 percent from 20 percent.
The new configuration added the Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi, Kaibab, Gila River, and Ak Chin tribes to the larger Native American communities that had previously been grouped together in CD1, the Navajo and Apache tribes.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who recently endorsed Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in the CD1 race, said he hopes the unification of the tribes will help achieve solutions to the challenges his and other tribes face.
“We fought hard for that high percentage of Native Americans,” Shelly said. “What we tried to do was help lead to a better life for Native Americans.”
Broadly speaking, maintaining the delicate but crucial relationship between the federal government and the state’s tribes is essential for the tribe’s representative in Congress, Shelly said.
“We rely so much on the federal budget and on federal funds,” Shelly said. Small changes to the federal budget, Shelly said, can lead to serious impacts on the tribe.
One reason Shelly said he endorsed Kirkpatrick is because of her support for the Affordable Care Act, which includes a provision that makes Indian Health Services funding permanent. While that program is mandated in a treaty between tribes and the federal government, the exact amounts of money required yearly legislation.
Shelly said that, along with Kirkpatrick’s promise to fight for other Native American infrastructure funding, caused him to support her.
Kirkpatrick’s Republican opponent, Jonathan Paton, has said he supports the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. He said if Republicans are successful in repealing the law, he would also work to ensure adequate health care funding for Native Americans.
Paton also points out that the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Council is still officially considering endorsements for him or Kirkpatrick, even though the president supports Kirkpatrick.
“They’re looking at two competing resolutions, one in support of me and one in support of her,” Paton said.
He said he expects a vote on those resolutions soon.
And the support for Kirkpatrick among Navajo Nation leaders is not unanimous.
Lorenzo Curley, one of the Navajo Nation council members, supports Paton, is advocating for him within his tribe, and said Shelly does not represent all members of the Navajo Nation.
Curley said one main reason he supports Paton is because the U.S. House is largely expected to remain in GOP control, so having a friend in the majority will mean an easier time getting favorable legislation.
“I don’t think (Shelly) has sat down and thought about the strengths and weaknesses between the two candidates,” Curley said. “If he were to do so, in the context of the Republican controlled House, he would come to a different conclusion. I feel that with the House being Republican, we will have a better opportunity with a Republican that we supported.”
Curley, who served six years on a Navajo-Hopi land commission, said that while Kirkpatrick was in Congress, he approached her about legislation and was dissatisfied with the level of work she put into it.
Relations between Kirkpatrick and other tribes’ leadership have not always been without conflict, Paton has said.
While serving in Congress between 2009 and 2011, Kirkpatrick voted in support of a mining land swap that the San Carlos Apaches opposed.
The newspaper The Hill reported in 2010 about a tense meeting between Kirkpatrick and Wendsler Nosie, the tribe’s then-chairman, over the issue. He said in the article that Kirkpatrick had promised to oppose the deal before ultimately supporting it.
Paton said conversations he’s had with various tribal leaders throughout the district about that and other issues give him reason to believe Kirkpatrick will not receive monolithic support from the Native American tribes.
But Kirkpatrick, who has consistently outraised and outspent Paton, has focused on mobilizing Native Americans.
Lambert Benally, a tribal political consultant working with Kirkpatrick’s campaign, maintains that she has “unparalleled” support among Native Americans in the district.
Benally said the biggest challenge facing voter participation on the reservations is the sparse nature of the tribal lands. But he said radio and TV ads, some in Native Americans’ language, and leaders’ encouragement at tribal meetings should help.
Shelly said another challenge is that some tribal members will have to visit two polling locations to cast a ballot in the state and federal election and the tribe’s election, which are on the same day. Shelly said his tribe scored a success when it was able to get the two primary elections on the same day, but they are still working on coordinating polling locations.