The Navajo Nation Council has declared its support for Heather Wilson for U.S. Senate. An October 17, 2012, letter signed by Johnny Naize, the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, while not explicitly calling upon tribal members to vote for Wilson, sends a clear message that the leaders of the largest Native American tribe in the country support her over Democratic opponent, Rep. Martin Heinrich. They left nothing to guess when they wrote to Wilson, “Our Nation and our Navajo people are in dire need of leaders such as you who can advocate for sensible solutions and sustainable economic development.”
You can read the Navajo endorsement of Wilson here.
How did Heinrich lose what most people thought was a lock on a reliable Democratic voting bloc? Look to the “war on coal” for an explanation.
Mitt Romney has been making “the war on coal” a pillar of his assault on Barack Obama’s policies as he tries to win votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. New Mexico may be the western front in that war, and it’s far from quiet. Ground zero has been PNM’s San Juan Generating Station which burns coal. About 70% of New Mexico’s electricity is produced from coal.
The Obama administration has been pushing PNM to impose $750 million of upgrades on its San Juan generating station to battle haze. The State of New Mexico has joined PNM in fighting for less costly technology which it argues effectively accomplishes the same objectives.
Santa Fe environmental groups have been waging a campaign to force PNM to stop using coal altogether. PNM says a switch to solar power, which is what those groups want, would drive electricity costs in New Mexico through the roof. A New Mexico Watchdog report has exposed the misleading aspects of that local anti-coal campaign.
Wilson has sided with the State and PNM. Heinrich has yet to take a position. As the Albuquerque Journal points out in a related story, Heinrich is heavily supported by the environmental activist lobby. The Albuquerque Journal report by Michael Coleman explores the candidates’ long term policies on coal. Heinrich wants it phased out. Wilson wants it used wisely. Heinrich also voted for cap-and-trade legislation would would have hit the coal industry and utilities hard.
Coleman also reported on the opposing candidates’ positions regarding the San Juan Generating Station controversy.
Environmental groups claim they are championing Navajo interests because emissions from the San Juan plant drift over Navajo lands. But the Navajo Nation opposes the EPA and has sided with the State of New Mexico and PNM. Over 300 Navajo jobs are at stake in this controversy, claim Navajo leaders.
Coal mining is a major economic engine for the Navajo Nation. According to a spokesman for the Peabody coal company, over $12 billion in direct and indirect economic impacts have been generated by its Black Mesa mine on the Navajo reservation since operations began in past decades.
The Navajo endorsement states: “Currently, the greatest threat to our nation’s jobs and economy is the untenable rulings handed down by the EPA, which threatens to adversely affect over 50% of our Nation’s revenues….Mrs. Wilson, you have clearly voiced your stance in support of the jobs and economic revenues that the coal industry represents to our region.”
The Navajo Nation in 2011 reported over 300,000 enrolled members and generally throws its support behind Democrats, though it has long been close to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. As Rob Nikolewski has been reporting, the self-inflicted wounds of Democrat State Rep. Ray Begaye have cast into doubt his re-election. Navajo support for Wilson may be another indication of shifting political tides in northwest New Mexico.
UPDATE: Following this report, a committee of the Navajo Nation Council voted to endorse Heinrich. How can there be conflicting endorsements and what does it all mean. Please see our full report on this issue posted November 1, 2012.