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Senator Carlyle Begay’s goal: to give a stronger voice to tribes

Newly sworn-inLD7 Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado. (Photo by Jim Small / Arizona Capitol Times.)

Newly sworn-inLD7 Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado. (Photo by Jim Small / Arizona Capitol Times.)

The newest senator from northern Arizona brings a different perspective to the Senate, one that is in large part guided by an upbringing as a Navajo and the unique needs of the state’s rural areas.

Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, replaces Jack Jackson Jr., as the senator from Legislative District 7 and takes up the burden of pushing the interest of Arizona’s tribal communities at the Capitol. The disconnect between the Capitol and the tribes is not an easy hurdle, noted Jackson.

“Growing up on the reservation, there’s different types of relationships between the tribes and the state. How do you bring all that into play on the state level certainly (is) an ongoing thing,” said Jackson, now a liaison between the Obama administration and tribal communities. “A lot of my colleagues there at the Legislature do not know about tribes, and do not know about tribal issues.”

Begay acknowledged that disconnect in a recent interview, noting that his first priority, “regardless of legislation, is really trying to build a bridge and develop relationships with the different stakeholders in my district.”

“And I would probably speak more on behalf of the tribes when I say that, because the tribes have historically really had no relationship with the state Legislature,” Begay said.

With a political stance strongly rooted in rural areas, lawmakers from LD7 also tend to be more moderate than their Democratic colleagues from urban Arizona, said lobbyist Barry Aarons, who counts  Rep. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, among the more centrist in caucus.

That also means Begay may be more willing than other Democrats to bend in order to pursue his own legislative agenda.

“A lot of the tribal folks are very willing to horse trade,” Aarons said. “There are majority leaders and presidents who have gone to tribal members and offered policy in exchange for looking for a Democratic vote or two.”

Begay has already shown a willingness to bend, if not break, as he acclimates himself to the Capitol. He was, by his own admission, maybe the only Democrat on the agenda at a GOP-led community hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s order for pollution reduction measures at the Navajo Generating Station. And he’s still molding his opinion on such issues as gun control and SB1070, frequent targets of Democrats at the Capitol.

The debate over the generating station, which employs many from the Navajo Nation, is a critical one for Begay because he must balance the need for jobs in tribal communities with the Democratic arguments for clean energy. Operators of NGS argue that the EPA’s order could shutter the power plant.

“This is a debate that has to be in the middle,” Begay said. “I do understand the environmental concerns and share those… but I feel like any short term decisions need to have long term discussions.”

As for other issues like immigration and gun control, Begay will learn as he goes. The senator said he’s eager to meet with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to discuss those issues.

“Perhaps he hasn’t really had an opportunity to think of it in that manner, as far as an elected official goes,” Jackson said. “I’m sure he’ll get pretty caught up to speed on that.”

Begay may not have an ally in Hale, another lawmaker representing tribal communities who would traditionally align with his LD7 Senate counterpart. Hale has challenged Begay’s appointment to the Senate, claiming Begay is in fact a resident of Gilbert and does not meet the residency requirements for office.

Officials with the Apache County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office are reviewing the matter.


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