Three Arizona tribal leaders on diverse slate of 11 electoral voters

Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. during congressional testimony in February. Norris is one of three tribal leaders, with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, on the slate of 11 diverse electors who will cast the state’s Electoral College votes Monday for President-elect Joe Biden. (File photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – In what a former Arizona elector called “a sweet irony,” the slate of 11 Democratic presidential electors who will cast Arizona’s Electoral College votes Monday includes three tribal leaders.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. will join eight other Democrats to cast the state’s votes for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

While it may have been a sweet irony, however, it was no accident.

Arizona Democratic Party Chair Felecia Rotellini said she wanted to choose electors who would “represent the diversity of Arizona, and the diversity of Arizona voters, as well as Arizona Democratic voters.” That included the three tribal leaders with “deep roots to our state.”

“The three leaders of the tribes that we selected are also great partners with the Arizona Democratic Party in terms of helping us to promote candidates that reflect the values that we all believe in – the values that were on the ballot in this election,” Rotellini said. “Without their leadership, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Norris did not respond to requests for comment and Lewis declined. But Nez called being chosen an elector is “a big honor.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention this summer. (File photo by Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News)

“I’m overjoyed, and happy to cast the Navajo electorate vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” he said.

The role of elector is largely symbolic, said Andrew Gordon, an elector in 1996, the last time Arizona voted for a Democratic president.

“Most people obviously don’t know they exist,” he said, even though it’s the electors who Americans actually cast ballots for when they vote in a presidential election.

The symbolism of this particular slate of electors is not lost on Gordon, especially in Arizona which has a “real serious disenfranchisement problem, particularly with the Native American population … So I do think there is a very sweet irony that we’ve got such a high representation.”

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, said the state’s 22 tribes, which hold “25% of the landmass in Arizona” need more input in all aspects of governance. She said Native Americans too often are “invisible to those that we elect in office,” but their high turnout and overwhelming support of Democrats this year proves they have an impact.

“People only come out during the campaigning time and promises are forgotten after people win their office,” said Peshlakai, who is Arizona’s first Native American woman senator. “So it’s important to have more Indigenous people in every capacity and then as electors as well, to, to keep the pressure up on those that we support.”

Nez, who was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention, said he has been reminding Democrats since the beginning of this election not to take the Native American vote for granted.

“I think it’s really a strong belief of the party that Native Americans continue to contribute and have contributed to this country,” Nez said. Native Americans “are key to the success of the Democratic Party, and also, the future of the party itself.”

Rotellini said it made sense to choose tribal leaders as electors because they have contributed to the state in a multitude of ways, including economically, spiritually and socially. Moreover, she said, the three tribal electors’ values align with the party’s on issues like affordable, accessible healthcare, good public education, environmental protection and protection of elders.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, center, one of three tribal leaders chosen as presidential electors to reflect the diversity of Democratic voters in the state. (File photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

Gordon commended Rotellini for naming an overall diverse slate of electors, noting that being party chair can be “just an awful” job.

“This is one of the very few little goodies you get is to name the electors, and she was very conscientious about” making sure it was a diverse group, Gordon said.

Rotellini said she “tried to represent the constituencies across the state from the southern border to the northern border and, yes, it was difficult.” She said she aimed to include as many constituency groups as she could: labor, LGBTQ, different ethnic groups, women leaders, as well as community activists, rural and urban residents and, of course, tribal leaders.

“It’s my chance to acknowledge their partnership and their contributions, not only in the individual electors, but the communities that they represent,” she said.

The other electors are: Rotellini, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, Luis Alberto Heredia, Constance Jackson, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy, James McLaughlin, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Fred Yamashita.

“It’s high time that we spend more time emphasizing the contributions – social, economic, spiritual – that our Native American communities provide to the quality and fabric of Arizona, and the quality and fabric of – and culture of – the United States,” she said.

Nez said the party’s recognition of tribes was important for turning out the Native vote this year, and it will matter for the future.

“I think in two years, there may be an opportunity for a Native American to run for statewide office,” he said. “That would be extraordinary.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Calah Schlabach is a multimedia storyteller pursuing a master’s degree in mass communication. She has been a graduate assistant for Global Sport Matters and a 2020 News21 fellow. Schlabach was a grant writer for a social services nonprofit and has written and copy editied in Vietnam and Haiti.

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