Native Vote Critical In Arizona's First District Congressional Race

October 28, 2014
Laurel Morales
Incumbent Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick is relying on the Navajo and other tribal members to vote. She campaigned on the Navajo Nation and other reservations.

Arizona’s First Congressional District is one of the most competitive races in the country. It’s a huge district and geographically it makes up around two-thirds of the state. And it’s relatively new. Arizona tribes wanted a stronger voice at the federal level. So back in 2011 they lobbied the redistricting commission to create the district which includes 12 tribal nations.

Ann Kirkpatrick knows how to dress the part. To walk the Western Navajo parade she wore a turquoise suede jacket with fringe and a long black skirt. She’s notorious for her cowgirl boots.

“Ann, where are your famous boots?” shouted one parade goer.

She wore her moccasins today. But she stomped her foot and told the crowd, “I can still put my foot down!”

She shook dozens of hands, held babies and greeted the parade goers in Navajo.

“She has been out here more than any person that I know of,” Sally Chee said. “She’s the only person I know who has helped the tribe.”

Chee and many other Navajos said they’ve seen the changes Kirkpatrick has made.

(Laurel Morales)

Kirkpatrick is the democratic incumbent. In her two terms in office she’s fought for impact aid for native schools and funding to repair a reservation highway. She voted for the Affordable Care Act, which provided continued funding for Indian Health and she helped expand health care for rural veterans.

Kirkpatrick’s not Native American, but she was raised on the White Mountain Apache reservation where her father ran the general store.

“I grew up on tribal land and so I know firsthand the struggles they go through and I really want life to be better,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick supporter Ron Lee worked the crowd in Navajo and English, yelling “isn’t it a good day to be a democrat?”

(Laurel Morales)

Darlene Martin was at the parade but isn’t impressed with the democrats or any candidate. Martin feels so disillusioned she’s not sure she’ll even vote.

“I have zero confidence in any of them anymore,” Martin said. “They say one thing but they do another once you vote them in.”

(Laurel Morales)

Martin questioned Kirkpatrick’s voting record on environmental issues. Kirkpatrick has co-sponsored a bill that would allow one of the largest copper mines to be built on land considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

The Republican contender in this race would disagree.  

“I hope voters give us a chance to lead in a very, very different direction,” Andy Tobin said in a phone interview.

Tobin touted his budget-cutting record as Arizona’s current house speaker.

“We’ve done many things at the state capital that have been helpful,” Tobin said. “And having inherited a very bad economy in a crisis unlike Arizona has ever seen before, I think we got it back on track.”

National conservative groups have put a lot of money into ads for Andy Tobin, in hopes of expanding GOP representation in the House.

Tobin’s campaign is focused on democratic spending, border security and limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m very distraught," Tobin said. "Our country’s not safer, our military not stronger, our borders aren’t more secure, our jobs haven’t come back and our debt is larger."

Unlike Kirkpatrick, Tobin was born in New York and lives just outside the district. But he said he knows rural Arizona and he recognizes that the Native American vote in this district is critical. The question is how is it critical?

“Really the game in this district is about turnout,” said Stephen Nuño, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University.

Nuño said minorities make up almost half the district and they usually vote democrat. Republicans will benefit if minorities, including Native Americans, don’t vote.

“The higher the turnout the less likely they are to win this district,” Nuño said.

Until recently, that turnout was expected to be up, as the Navajos should have been voting on a new president on Nov. 4. But that presidential election might be postponed, which means voter turnout may well be down.