Democrats Compete for Native Vote in AZ-1

Chinle, AZ – Last week Barack Obama became the first African-American nominated by a major party for president. In another potentially history-making race here in Arizona, Mary Kim Titla is vying to become the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress. Congressional District One is nearly a quarter American Indian; that's the largest percentage in any district in the country. But just because Titla's Native American doesn't mean she has the Indian vote sewn up. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports.

You know you're in Arizona's First Congressional District when you hear a political candidate introducing herself like this.

(Introduces herself in Navajo) Yah te, Mary Kim Titla, I'm going to introduce myself in the Apache language duck down

That's Democrat Mary Kim Titla, a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe. She spoke in front of about 150 people at a recent candidates' forum at a Chinle gymnasium, smack in the middle of the vast Navajo Nation.

So you understand a little bit, Apache? I was born on the reservation, raised on the reservation, I grew up the way many of you grew up, without plumbing, without electricity, living in a two-room house.

Titla argues that her experience overcoming poverty on the reservation makes her uniquely qualified to represent Indian people. But she's not the only candidate who can relate to people on the Navajo Nation.

Shanker: (Introduces himself in Navajo) For the past 15 years I've been fighting for the environment, the tribes, I represent the Navajo Nation as a lawyer in many issues.

Democratic attorney Howard Shanker represents the Navajo Nation in the San Francisco Peaks snowmaking case, as well as on uranium contamination issues. He's a biligaana, a white person in Navajo, but he's racked up a slew of endorsements from Navajo council delegates and local chapters.

4:45 It's important to have Native Americans in Congress, but even more important for the NN to have representative who has a track record of fighting for NN, and who will advocate for NN, and who is equipped to advocate in Congress.

Not since this district was carved out of rural Arizona after the 2000 census, have so many candidates had so much experience in Indian Country. While Democratic frontrunner Ann Kirkpatrick didn't attend the forum in Chinle, she's the only candidate who's actually represented the Navajo Nation, as a state legislator in Arizona's 2nd district. She's also garnered some high profile Navajo endorsements of her own.

Soundbite of radio ad

That's former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah, in an ad broadcast on AM station KTNN, which reaches the entire reservation. So who has the advantage here? It's a complicated but important question on a reservation that's heavily Democratic. Fred Solop chairs the department of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.

In the primary we have Navajo coming out for the Democrats, so the Democratic vote itself is significantly influenced by Navajo participation in the election.

And perhaps because of the importance of the Navajo vote, there's been a unique competition over who's more qualified to represent the Navajo people. Here's Mary Kim Titla again at the candidates' forum in Chinle.

TRACK 21, 3:00 There is no reason why a Native American cannot be in congress, especially from AZ. The reason I'm running, there should be more diversity in congress, I believe that NAs are qualified to run for Congress

Howard Shanker responded by saying when he votes, he doesn't vote for someone because he or she is white.

I vote for the person who I think is going to do the best job bringing home the funds and fighting for the thigns that are important to me, for many of the Navajo, they understand that Washington is a difficult place to be, you need someone who's qualified, willing to advocate for you, willing to fight

And there's another cultural factor that may benefit Shanker among some traditional Navajo. Maria Begay is a Shanker supporter who doesn't believe a woman should represent her people in Congress.

As a native, especially in our culture, we were told that we are not supposed to be a leader, we can raise a leader and a warrior, inside a Hogan is our territory, outside belongs to a warrior and a leader that's just how it is, I'm sorry, that's how my mom believed, my grandma

But Mary Kim Titla holds a cultural and culinary advantage of her own.

On top of that, I'm multi talented I know how to make fry bread! (big cheer)

While that's a skill that should not be overlooked in Indian Country, it won't matter if Navajos don't go to the polls in high numbers tomorrow. And this year high gas prices could exacerbate what historically has been a low Native American turnout.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Chinle, on the Navajo Nation.