Karen Bedonie for Congress: Bedonie Takes a Beating and Comes out UNTOUCHED

'We are a forgotten people': Native candidate struggles to be heard amid COVID-19 pandemic

With just a month left before voters go to the polls in New Mexico's 3rd Congressional district, Karen Bedonie is looking for ways to boost her struggling campaign.

As a citizen of the Navajo Nation who lives in a remote area of the reservation without running water and high-speed internet, Bedonie is already at a disadvantage when it comes to campaigning in an increasingly digital age. But now the worst public health crisis in decades has set her efforts back significantly during a crucial period of the race for the Republican party's nomination.

"We are a forgotten people," Bedonie, an entrepreneur and mother of eight, told Indianz.Com in an interview on Sunday.

"And it's not just Navajo people, but rural New Mexicans, we're all forgotten," Bedonie said of a district in the northern part of the state that's home to a number of tribal, Hispanic and other remote communities.

Karen Bedonie for Congress: NM Gov. MLG Blocks Indian Nations from getting Food & Water

In hopes of breaking through, Bedonie has boosted her online presence in recent days despite not having adequate broadband on the reservation. In videos and posts over the past week, she's boasted of having "escaped" from the Navajo Nation, where she said curfews, social distancing guidelines and other restrictions have prevented her from going door-to-door, putting up signs and posters, making media appearances and engaging in other types of activities that might otherwise get her in front of voters before the June 2 primary.

"It's so hard for me as a candidate right now," Bedonie said via satellite phone -- her main method of communicating when she's at home on the reservation.

Bedonie's connection was shaky, with frequent drop outs occurring throughout the conversation. It's one of the reasons why she has had to turn down various offers from New Mexico media to appear via video because her system can't handle it.

"I have a Wi-Fi satellite but I can't stream video," Bedonie said of a setup that prevents viewers from being able to see her face-to-face, if even virtually.

"So I can't Zoom, I can't Facebook, I can't do different apps -- it doesn't stream well," she said of her internet at Navajo. "It keeps cutting out and it freezes up."

The Rock of Talk: Karen Bedonie - Candidate for New Mexico Congressional District 3

Her workaround has been to drive to nearby cities -- mostly Gallup but more recently Farmington -- in order to connect with people in the district. She's been on "The Rock of Talk" with Eddy Aragon, a must-stop for Republican and conservative candidates who want to reach the kinds of people who will be voting in the GOP primary.

So have her Republican opponents, of which there are a handful. But unlike Bedonie, they live in more populated areas of the district, where they benefit from faster internet connections.

They can also easily drive into a studio, as one did recently for a stint on Aragon's show, helping to establish more of a face-to-face connection with voters with so many people at home during the pandemic. For Bedonie, a trip to the capital city of Santa Fe takes almost 4 hours, each way, making such appearances a luxury she can't always afford during the pandemic.

"So they are just telling us that we can call in, or drive all the way out and do an interview in the parking lot," Bedonie said her efforts to get her message out through the mainstream media.

The Rock of Talk: Alexis Johnson - Republican Candidate for New Mexico Congressional District 3

It's that type disparity that's hindering Bedonie. In theory, she should be able to jump right on the air and challenge what another GOP candidate said on Aragon's show on April 18, when the Navajo Nation was on a 57-hour weekend curfew that prevented her from leaving the reservation under fear of citations and other penalties.

Alexis Johnson, who describes herself as a "proud New Mexican" on her campaign site, attributed her physical appearance to her "great-great grandma." On the show, she said her ancestor was "Apache" but did not elaborate.

“I’m not a card carrying individual," Johnson said when asked by Aragon whether she was affiliated with a particular tribe.

Johnson's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment that was placed in the afternoon, New Mexico time, on Sunday. But on the show she described how she has integrated what she said were Native cultural elements into her family's life.

“My children were raised in cradleboards," Johnson said of the protective baby-carriers found throughout Indian Country.

"They know how to make atole," she said in reference to a traditional corn-based drink that's common in Apache, Navajo, Pueblo and other tribal societies in the southwest.

Bedonie speaks the Navajo language and attributes her values to the guidance she received from her Navajo grandparents. She found Johnson's comments troublesome.

“She raised her kids on a cradleboard? I don't know if that qualifies herself to say she’s a Native American," Bedonie told Indianz.Com.

"She was talking and saying that she is Apache and she doesn't even say it correctly," Bedonie added.

Karen Bedonie, a mother of eight from the Navajo Nation, is among the Native candidates for U.S. Congress in 2020. She is seeking the Republican nomination for New Mexico's 3rd District. Photo courtesy campaign Karen Bedonie for Congress

On the show, Johnson accused Bedonie of engaging in a form of identity politics, a hot-button issue in conservative circles. In essence, she told Aragon that her rival makes too much of her tribal roots.

"I'm not one of those candidates that comes out the door saying, 'Vote for me because I am Hispanic, vote for me because I am a Native American," said Johnson, who has been her invoking her Spanish surname of Martinez on the campaign trail. "I am not about sectarianism."

"To me that's a very Democrat way of coming to the table," Johnson added, later telling listeners that a quick look at Bedonie's website, which is unmistakably Native, proves her point.

Native Americans represent about 20 percent of the population in New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, one of the highest rates of any district in the U.S. It's home to large portions of the Navajo Nation, as well as several Pueblo tribes and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, whose name Johnson pronounced on the radio show with a distinctly Spanish accent.

So appealing to Native voters is common for candidates of all stripes. The district is currently represented by Ben Ray Luján, who frequently points out that he was raised on Pueblo homelands near Santa Fe, where he continues to live.

Luján is vacating the seat to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and his campaign touts his commitment to upholding the treaty and trust responsibilities of the federal government. His recent legislative achievements include renewing a Native language program that is named in honor of the late Esther Martinez, a Pueblo linguist who lived at Ohkay Owingeh, one of the tribes in the district.

"With the passage of this legislation, Congress has made monumental progress to affirm Native communities honoring their heritage by speaking the languages gifted to them by their creators," Luján said as the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act was clearing its final hurdle in the nation's capital three months ago.

ASSISTANT SPEAKER CONGRESSMAN BEN RAY LUJÁN 06.13.19 Today, President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer met with New Mexico Congressman and Assistant Speaker of the House Ben Ray Luján on Capitol Hill, regarding H.R. 2181: the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act of 2019, the need to continue the Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation, broadband access,support for RECA amendments, the need for a new Gallup Indian Medical Center facility, and support for the development of a nitrile glove manufacturing facility in the community of Church Rock, New Mexico. Please watch the message from Congressman Ben Ray Luján to the Navajo People. Ahe’hee’

Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Thursday, June 13, 2019
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer: Meeting with New Mexico Congressman and Assistant Speaker of the House Ben Ray Luján

Bedonie is far from Luján on the political spectrum. In fact, one of the reasons she is running for Congress is because she believes he hasn't done enough to improve the quality of life on the Navajo Nation.

"We don't have running water," Bedonie said of conditions in many parts of the reservation. "I'm one of the ones that has to haul water."

And while Bedonie intends to focus on Indian Country's needs should she be elected -- they are a major portion of the constituency in the district after all -- she doesn't take kindly to rivals questioning her motives.

"There's a lot of disinformation and misinformation," Bedonie said. "I'm not just running to help Native Americans," she added, citing a lack of adequate infrastructure throughout the district as one of the issues she hopes to address in Congress.

Cronkite News Video by Emma Lockhart: Access to running water limited for Navajo Nation

Apart from intra-party disagreements, Bedonie and the rest of the Republican field are in an uphill battle to claim the seat being vacated by Luján. The 3rd Congressional District has been held by a Democrat for 35 out of the last 37 years. Voters have chosen a Democratic candidate for president in every election since 2000.

The heavily Democratic and tribal makeup of the district explains why Bedonie's efforts to boost her profile have -- by her own admission -- generated significant backlash. Navajo citizens are calling for a boycott of her family's businesses because she has purposely broken stay-at-home orders on the reservation.

Over the weekend in fact, she went to Farmington to participate in a protest against the state of New Mexico's coronavirus prevention orders. Capitalizing on a better cellular signal in the border town, she broadcast video of herself driving through the streets during the rally, a move that has sparked outrage on social media.

"She’s not only putting herself and family at risk she’s also putting her customers at risk," one popular Navajo citizen wrote in a widely shared post. "This is highly unethical and unprofessional and as a Diné/Navajo and politician she should know better"

"You also do no deserve to represent New Mexico for Congress and our Diné people," another tribal citizen said online.

Posted by Karen Bedonie on Saturday, May 2, 2020

Bedonie acknowledges that her actions have been controversial because she knows that her tribe is suffering from one of the highest rates of coronavirus infections in the U.S. As of May 2, the Navajo Nation reported 2,292 COVID-19 positive cases and 73 deaths from the disease.

Maintaining stay-at-home orders and abiding by social distancing guidelines are cornerstones of the tribe's efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Travel to border towns like Gallup and Farmington is also strongly discouraged.

"Last week, we began to see a slight flattening of the curve, but so many people continue to travel to border towns and now we’re seeing spikes in new cases again," President Jonathan Nez said over the weekend with another 57-hour curfew in place. "We, as citizens of the Navajo Nation, need to do a better job and hold one another accountable."

And it's not just the tribe taking drastic measures. Following Nez's lead, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) over the weekend authorized a lockdown in Gallup, where a large number of cases have emerged among Navajo citizens who lack adequate housing.

"A problem in one part of our state, with a virus this dangerous and this contagious, is a problem for our entire state," said Grisham, whose coronavirus efforts have won her praise in the mainstream media.

In the interview, Bedonie said criticism of her escapes from the Navajo Nation has been strong. The "backlash," as she put it, prompted her to create a video defending herself even though it can take several hours for one to post online.

"Yesterday, I ventured out out and I got chastised for it," Bedonie told Indianz.Com of her trip to Farmington on Saturday. "But I was exercising my freedom to assemble, to move around, and my free speech."

And despite the "beating" she took, there are signs that her efforts are making a major impact. Her latest video amassed nearly 10,000 views in less than 12 hours. Another one about the impact of the governor's shutdown orders on Indian Country has drawn more than 63,000 views.

That's far more than Johnson's videos across multiple platforms. Bedonie also has many more followers on social media.

But with all the talk online of a boycott, Bedonie is paying a price. She confirmed to Indianz.Com that her family has already shut down one of their establishments -- a floral shop in Farmington.

A second floral shop is still up and running, as is their plumbing business and another one that sells caskets on the reservation.

"Those ones will probably be impacted soon," Bedonie of her family's enterprises. "We're are also seeing the numbers drop."

A drop in revenues, brought on by the pandemic-related shutdown orders, as well as high overhead costs, contributed to the closure of the Farmington shop, she said.

"So we need to open New Mexico back up for business," Bedonie said.

Bedonie isn't the only Native Republican candidate feeling the impacts of the coronavirus. Gavin Clarkson just finished filming his first television ad for his U.S. Senate campaign on Sunday. With the primary fast approaching, he too said he has been unable to run the type of campaign he envisioned just a few weeks ago.

"I would expect, for a contested primary, you would have had multiple debates around the state," Clarkson, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, told Indianz.Com. Two other Republicans are seeking the nomination.

"And yet, since the shutdown," there haven't been any, said Clarkson, who served in an Indian policy position in Washington, D.C, for the Donald Trump administration in 2017.

Shifting campaigns online isn't a solution, Clarkson said, especially for voters who live on reservations and in rural areas of New Mexico. But going door-to-door in Indian Country is not possible in the foreseeable future, since a number of tribes in the state have closed their reservations to outsiders amid high rates of COVID-19 in some communities.

"How are we supposed to reach people who aren't tech savvy enough to do a Zoom conference?" Clarkson said after filming his forthcoming TV spot near the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which has been closed by the federal government due to the pandemic.

"Or reach those who live in rural areas or tribal areas that don't have the bandwidth for it?" Clarkson added.

If Clarkson wins the primary on June 2, he is planning to make Luján's record on Indian issues a central part of the campaign. Luján is the presumed Democratic nominee, as all of the other candidates have withdrawn.

Bedonie and Clarkson aren't the only Native Republican Congressional candidates in New Mexico this year. They are joined by Yvette Herrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who is once again seeking the GOP nomination for the 2nd district.

In 2018, Herrell lost to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small, who does not identify as Native but whose first name means flower in the Nahuatl language. Torres Small is running for re-election.

Clarkson also sought the GOP nod for the same seat in 2018 but came in third in the party's primary.

Deb Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, is seeking re-election to represent the 1st Congressional district of New Mexico. She secured the seat in 2018, making history as one of the first two Native women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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