PHOENIX Four years ago, Kelsey Begaye became president of the Navajo Nation by defeating Joe Shirley Jr. with more than 50 percent of the vote.
It was a milestone for Begaye, a Vietnam veteran who had been an alcoholic homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles before turning his life around.
Now Begaye is scrambling to turn his political life around before Tuesday's general election, where he again faces Shirley, who beat Begaye by more than 8,000 votes in the August primary.
Begaye said he expected to finish second in the primary and felt good about the numbers, despite the humiliation of losing to Shirley in his home chapter of Kaibito.
"This is still winnable," Begaye said, pointing to the fact that there were 16,000 Navajos who voted for one of the other 15 candidates in the primary. Those votes are now up for grabs.
During his four years in office, Begaye has been criticized on several issues. He is accused of bureaucratic inefficiency in moving slowly to appoint the heads of government agencies, not doing enough to combat crime and becoming embroiled in an unpopular vote for tribal council pay raises.
Begaye vetoed a measure to allow council members to give themselves a $10,000 pay raise. But when the council overrode the veto, he angered many voters by accepting the raise.
"People want change," said Shirley's campaign manager Patrick Sandoval. "Begaye has been unable to produce. The heart of the issues are the same for both men, but people think the executive level is not working with the legislative level."
Both men are Democrats and both have served on the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative branch of government. Shirley was a delegate for 12 years before becoming the chairman of the Apache County Board of Supervisors. Begaye also served on the Navajo Nation Council as speaker until 1998, when he became president.
Shirley of Chinle attributes his success in the primary to the fact he visited 84 of the 110 chapter houses. He expects a landslide victory in the general election.
But Shirley's selection of running mate Frank Dayish Jr., a political novice mining official, has sparked allegations that Dayish won't represent the tribe's best interests in future mining negotiations.
Begaye is running with vice presidential incumbent Taylor McKenzie.
The Navajo Nation is one of the country's largest Indian tribes, with nearly 300,000 members. The tribe's reservation is spread across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.