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TUES: Navajo Nation primary to narrow list of 15 presidential hopefuls to 2, + More

Navajos to narrow list of 15 presidential hopefuls to 2 —  Felecia Fonesca, Associated Press

Navajo voters will decide Tuesday which two of 15 presidential hopefuls they want to advance to the tribe's general election.

The candidates include incumbent Jonathan Nez, former Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish Jr., former tribal Attorney General Ethel Branch, attorney Justin Jones, and Buu Van Nygren, the vice presidential candidate from 2018.

Their platforms include economic development, ensuring Navajos have basic infrastructure like running water and electricity, and finding ways to preserve the Navajo language.

More than 122,000 Navajos are registered to vote in the primary that's held the same day as Arizona's primary. The tribe generally sees around a 50% voter turnout. Polls are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain time.

The Navajo Nation is largest Native American reservation in the U.S., spanning 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of high desert, forests, wind-swept mesas and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second to only the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

The two Navajo candidates with the highest number of votes move on to the November general election.

Nez says he will bring continuity to the tribal government at a time it's tasked with spending more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding.

Branch is among six vying to become the first woman to lead the Navajo Nation. The others are: educator Dolly Mason; scholar Leslie Tsosie; Chinle Chapter President Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie Davis, who has advocated for extracting natural resources; former New Mexico state legislator Sandra Jeff; and Emily Ellison, who says she will push the federal government to give the Navajo Nation title to its land if elected.

Nygren sees himself as a diplomat who can work with tribal lawmakers. Jones has said he'll unravel Navajo regulations to better support small businesses. Dayish said he'll work to expand agriculture and manufacturing industries to spur job creation and generate tax revenue for the tribe where unemployment hovers around 50%.

The other candidates are: Greg Bigman, chairman of the Diné College Board of Regents; Ts'ah Bii Kin Chapter manager Earl Sombrero; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, both of whom sought the tribal presidency in 2018.

New Mexico starts the work of hiring a new PRC – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

New Mexico put out a help wanted sign for three people to take over as the Public Regulation Commission.

In 2020, New Mexico voters gave state leadership the duty to reform how it picks the members of the PRC, the state regulatory agency that oversees everything from sewers, to gas lines, internet and electricity.

A constitutional amendment changing the PRC from a five-person committee, all elected, to a three-person group appointed by the governor, passed in the 2020 general election with 55% of New Mexicans in support of an agency overhaul.

The new PRC starts work in January.Monday kicked off the process for the first time with the introduction of the people who will sort through candidates and make recommendations to the governor by November.

New Mexico’s seven-person nominating committee is a mix between energy, legislative and conservation interests.

Ron Lovato, Brian Egolf, Alonzo Baldonado, Rikki Seguin, Cydney Beadles, William Brancard, Denise Romanas sit on the temporary committee.

Baldonado’s name was floated as someone with interest in chairing the committee but he wasn’t in his seat. Egolf stood in, saying someone present should lead the group and garnered support from his colleagues.

Like a gust, Baldonado hurried into the meeting, saying traffic on La Bajada Hill was down to one lane. His pass north on Interstate 25 into Santa Fe was a delay in another way for the former Republican state representative for Valencia County.

“Would you like to be secretary?” Egolf asked.

“Secretary? And you’ll be the chair?” Baldonado questioned. “If that’s the will of the group.”

It was.

Egolf, months away from retirement as state House majority leader, took on another task before leaving office and read the six-meeting schedule the nominating committee will take on to find candidates for the PRC.

The process is like a civics lesson in government hiring:

Aug.15, a discussion of qualifications and expectations for the new PRC.

Sept. 12, discussion on the PRC’s role and setting public comment rules

The next three meetings will be most impactful in the process, and public comment guidelines that should be handled in the prior meeting should make this easy for anyone to follow.

SourceNM will update with info on live-stream links and info about how to deliver your public comment to keep you informed.

At this point, New Mexico will have recruited its batch of PRC candidates. The potentially new employees of the state will have their applications reviewed during the Oct. 3 meeting. By Oct 18, the commission will have its picks for interviews. On Nov. 7 there will be an update on how the interview process is going.

By Nov. 14, candidates for the regulatory commission will be submitted to Gov.Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The meetings are expected to be held in-person, Egolf said.

Egolf insisted on transparency in sorting and choosing candidates, reminding the committee members to use the state emails provided to them for the group’s work and not personal or business email.

“Please, do that,” he said. “It’s a lot easier for the records custodian and when you get a request. It will be a lot easier for you to be able to say I have no committee-related materials.”

Virgin Galactic planning an astronaut campus in New Mexico - Associated Press

Aerospace and space travel company Virgin Galactic announced Tuesday that it's planning to build an astronaut campus and training facility in southern New Mexico.

Company officials said in a statement that it has secured land for the facility outside Truth or Consequences near the location of Spaceport America.

They said the planned facility will include training facilities, accommodations, tailored experiences, an observatory, wellness center and dining option and it will only be available to future astronauts of Virgin Galactic and some of their guests.

There's no immediate word on when construction of the project will begin.

"I'm thrilled to welcome the next chapter of Virgin Galactic's continued investment in New Mexico," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Tuesday. "The new astronaut campus in Sierra County will spur further economic activity for New Mexico, creating more local jobs and attracting new visitors and spending to the area."

Last month, Virgin Galactic announced it had selected the Phoenix suburb of Mesa as the site where it will assemble its next class of rocket ships with the facility capable of producing up to six spaceships per year.

Officials said the Delta class suborbital spaceplanes will be designed to fly weekly, supporting the company's target of 400 flights annually from Spaceport America.

They said the first of the spaceships is expected to start payload flights in late 2025 with private astronaut flights in 2026.

Driver arrested in New Mexico crash that killed 2, hurt 10 — Associated Press

A Mexican man has been arrested for reckless driving in connection with a rollover crash that left two people dead and 10 others injured last week, New Mexico State Police said Monday.

They said 19-year-old Julio Garcia Rascon was driving an SUV at a high rate of speed around 5 a.m. on July 27 when it struck a utility pole and rolled near Santa Teresa a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Police said 24-year-old Jorge Garcia-Vazquez and 18-year-old Guadalupe Cruze-Vasquez, both from Mexico, were ejected from the vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene.

Rascon and nine passengers were transported to a hospital in El Paso, Texas for treatment while one other passenger escaped injury.

Police said Rascon was released two days later and booked into a Dona Ana County jail in Las Cruces on suspicion of reckless driving, two counts of homicide by vehicle and 10 counts of great bodily injury by vehicle.

It was unclear Monday if Rascon had a lawyer yet who could speak on his behalf.

During theiir crash investigation, State Police said investigators learned that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent attempted to make a traffic stop on the SUV but it was unsuccessful and the vehicle with the 13 occupants sped away.

While authorities did not identify the people in the SUV as immigrants, the stretch of border in southeastern New Mexico where the crash happened is among the spots where migrants regularly are smuggled across from Mexico in SUVs.

New Mexico forester lifts restrictions as fire danger eases — Associated Press

New Mexico's state forester on Monday lifted fire restrictions that had been imposed in the spring due to extreme wildfire danger, saying summer rains were bringing relief.

Still, State Forester Laura McCarthy warned that some parts of New Mexico remain dry and that people should be cautious with any use of fire and fireworks.

"New Mexicans are living through historic climate change that is becoming our new normal," she said in a statement.

The state restrictions prohibiting campfires, smoking and other opening burning were put in place in late April as hot, dry and windy conditions fueled multiple large fires. That included two planned burns by federal land managers that became the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate and hundreds of homes in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range were destroyed as a result of the massive blaze. Now, surrounding communities are dealing with deadly flooding as storm runoff flows from barren mountainsides within the burn scar.

Three people died last week when they were swept away by fast-moving floodwaters northwest of the community of Las Vegas.

Residents say they are getting pounded daily by storms.

"I've never seen so much water in my life up here, and there's nothing to hold the water back. There's nothing," Isidro Archuleta, 58, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week granted the governor's request to include flooding impacts in New Mexico's disaster declaration for counties affected by wildfires.

Forest officials said Monday that areas across the fire still were experiencing dangerous conditions, such as flooding and debris flows and that as weather allows, crews will continue repairing culverts, mending fences and doing other work to control erosion.

'His heart was in it': Reporter covered Navajo for 5 decades - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Bill Donovan, a prolific journalist who covered the Navajo Nation for five decades at newspapers in New Mexico and Arizona, has died. He was 76.

Donovan recently was hospitalized with pneumonia and died Saturday night at his home in Torrance, California, surrounded by loved ones, said his daughter, Kelly Cunningham.

Donovan was an institution on the Navajo Nation, a reporter who quickly could recall moments in Navajo history and phone numbers. He worked for the Gallup Independent, the Navajo Times, the Arizona Republic and other small publications — sometimes at the same time.

Donovan wrote about a longstanding land dispute between Navajos and Hopis, a hospital takeover, politics and efforts to reform tribal government. No story was more memorable — or scary — than a 1989 riot in the tribal capital of Window Rock that turned deadly in a political power struggle, he said days before he died.

And no reporter knew more about former Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald, who was convicted of inciting the riot, or about what led up to it than Donovan. He drew from decades of reporting to add rich context to his stories.

"One of the most prized qualities that a writer can bring to a story, other than the ability to write well, is institutional memory," Donovan wrote in a December 2018 essay in the Navajo Times.

Donovan moved to California in 2018 to be closer to his children but continued writing under a Los Angeles dateline for the Navajo Times, an outlet he was fired from several times over stories he wrote critical of the tribal government. He had two children: Cunningham and Richard Donovan, and two grandchildren.

Cunningham said her father showed her the importance of quick wit, patience and kindness. She recalled a magic show that went awry when she was in grade school in Gallup, New Mexico, and Donovan was part of the act. Her dad saved her the embarrassment by doing an impromptu comedy show in front of the whole school, she said.

"Dad always lived in the moment in the best way," she said. "I have never ever seen him angry, judgmental or stressed."

Raised in Newport, Kentucky, Donovan attended nearby Georgetown College. He was working the police beat at the Lexington Herald in his early 20s when a sergeant who was Navajo recommended that he go to the Navajo Nation nearly 700 miles away and be a reporter.

Donovan first was hired as a sports editor at the Gallup Independent.

"He didn't know a damn thing about sports," said the paper's publisher, Bob Zollinger. "He didn't know what a baseball bat was versus a golf club. So he read a few books and started writing sports."

Donovan was an avid reader. He'd read while in his car waiting at stoplights and during Navajo Nation Council sessions that he attended so regularly that he was dubbed "the councilman from Gallup." He donated his massive collection of books to local libraries when he left for California.

A fan of movies and eating at McDonalds, Donovan often dressed in plaid, dingy button-up shirts and jotted notes on napkins and scraps of paper. He wrote stories from memory before turning to those notes.

Former Navajo President Peterson Zah recalled first meeting Donovan when Zah worked as a legal advocate in the 1970s.

"His heart was in it," Zah said. "That's a good sign. He really wanted the truth to come out in most of these stories."

His knowledge of the Navajo people, history and tribal government was encyclopedic, said Tom Arviso, who recently retired as publisher of the Navajo Times. Donovan wasn't afraid to take on any subject or anyone, even if it meant he'd be fired yet again from the Navajo Times before it became independent of the tribal government, Arviso said.

"There were people who just didn't care for him because he was biligaana and felt like he shouldn't be writing about Navajo people," said Arviso, using the Navajo word for "white person." "But Bill was a smart guy, very intelligent and easy-going. He knew so much."

Man convicted in death and dismemberment of New Mexico girl — Associated Press

A man was convicted Monday in the 2016 death of an Albuquerque girl who was strangled, dismembered and set on fire in the bathtub of her mother's apartment on her 10th birthday.

The jury deliberated less than four hours before returning with guilty verdicts on all charges Fabian Gonzales faced in the death of Victoria Martens. He was charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence.

Prosecutors said Gonzales faces up to 43 1/2 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Gonzales, now 37, had moved into the girl's mother's apartment a month before the girl's death on Aug. 23, 2016. Prosecutors during the trial argued that although Gonzales didn't kill Victoria, he set in motion a series of events that created a dangerous environment that ultimately led to the girl's death.

Gonzales was also accused of helping his cousin, Jessica Kelley, dismember the girl, set her remains on fire and clean the crime scene in an attempt to conceal the death.

Kelley, 37, testified that she was high on methamphetamine at the time. She reached a plea agreement with prosecutors on charges that included reckless child abuse resulting in death in exchange for testifying at Gonzales' trial. She was sentenced earlier this year to 44 years in prison.

The girl's mother, Michelle Martens, 41, pleaded guilty to one count of intentional child abuse resulting in death in a 2018 plea agreement. Her sentencing was delayed until the conclusion of Gonzales' trial and prosecutors have said she is expected to get 12 to 15 years in prison.

During the investigation, police determined that Martens and Gonzales were not home when Victoria was killed and arrived later that night.

Defense lawyers tried but failed to convince jurors that Kelley was solely responsible for the girl's death and dismemberment. Gonzales had allowed Kelley to stay at the Martens' apartment shortly after Kelley was released from prison.

"I would tell you, this is not a complicated case, it's actually fairly easy to solve. But emotion can overwhelm that," Stephen Aarons, Gonzales' attorney, said in his closing argument. "There is an urge to flush anyone and everyone remotely connected down the toilet."

Aarons said the verdict will be appealed.

Gonzales tested positive for COVID-19 last week and appeared virtually at his trial for two days.

He returned Monday to hear the verdict from a plexiglass box inside the courtroom.