Surrounded by Republican bigwigs, including John McCain and Jeff Flake, Democratic state Senator Carlyle Begay, whose district covers the Navajo Nation, announced that he is joining the Republican Party.
“With an open mind and heart, I clearly see the Republican Party is a party of progress, a party of hope, a party of opportunity and moving forward — my party,” the Navajo lawmaker said at a press conference at the Arizona Capitol.
Begay was first elected in 2013 as a Democrat to represent Arizona’s Legislative District 7, which covers most of northeastern Arizona and includes the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
He was joined by his family, as well as a number of Republican lawmakers and party leaders when he announced that he is switching parties on Monday. Besides Arizona senators McCain and Flake, among those present were state Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham, Republican Senate President Andy Biggs, and most of the GOP state Senate caucus.
McCain described Begay as “an accomplished leader” and said it was “a great honor for me as a proud Republican to welcome him to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.”
Begay's move came in the wake of McCain's recent confrontation during a visit to Window Rock by young Native activists who oppose a bill he helped pass that opened copper mining in Oak Flat, which is part of Arizona's Tonto National Forest and is considered holy land by Apaches. Confronted by signs saying "McCain's Not Welcome Here" and calling him an "Indian Killer," the former GOP presidential nominee and his entourage were chased off the Navajo Nation.
Begay released a two-minute video titled “Change Must Happen Now” in which he explains his reasons for switching parties, including the support he claims he has gotten from Republicans as he tries to improve jobs, education, and infrastructure for rural and tribal communities in his district.
The news didn’t come as a surprise to Democrats, given that Begay has crossed party lines and voted for Republican-led bills several times since getting elected in 2013.
“During his short tenure in the state Senate, Senator Begay has often sided with conservative Republicans’ priorities, in addition to casting the deciding vote earlier this year in favor of Governor Ducey’s budget that cut funding to the 33 school districts located in Indian Country,” said Alexis Tameron, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party.
Though Begay has gone to the other side, Tameron said, members of her party look forward to continuing to work with remaining Democratic Native American lawmakers, including Navajo state Representative Albert Hale, during the next legislative session "to advocate for increased education funding and progressive empowerment on behalf of the families of LD7."
"We also look forward to replacing him with a Diné [Navajo] Democrat in 2016," she added.
At the press conference, Begay acknowledged his decision would “not be popular for some” but said he feels he can work with Republicans as he tries to address issues affecting his district — including a high level of unemployment, which he said has been as much as 80 percent
in some areas.
He also said roads, bridges, and infrastructure in his district are crumbling and that many families live in Third World conditions because they lack access to energy or clean running water. On education, he said students in his district are ranked last in math and reading proficiency and many aren’t graduating from high school.
He failed to explain how the Republican Party, whose Arizona leaders have cut education funding statewide, is helping schools in his economically disadvantaged district.
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Yet Begay maintained: “In the past two years, it has been the Republican Party and our state leaders that have worked side by side with me to improve education, jobs, and infrastructure in these communities with the most needs.”
Republicans already controlled the Arizona Senate, with 17 of 30 seats. Now, Begay will become the 18th Republican in the chamber.
Governor Doug Ducey said in a statement he is “proud” to welcome Begay to the GOP: “Legislative District 7 is well served by Senator Begay’s commitment to individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, and personal empowerment. His service to his constituents is unwavering.”