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District 3 state Senate candidates focused on health care


Need for new facilities in district highlighted

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON —While state lawmakers will face a variety of issues when they had back to the Capitol for a new session early in 2021, the two candidates who are vying for the District 3 seat in the state Senate largely are zeroed in on a single subject — health care.

That's because the district covers large portions of San Juan and McKinley counties, which are perhaps the two hardest-hit areas in the state when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic incumbent Shannon Pinto and Republican challenger Arthur Allison both say that providing better health care to the people who live in the district, which has a high Native population, is essential.

District 3 includes the northwest corner of New Mexico, extending to the Colorado and Arizona borders. It covers Shiprock and the southwest corner of Farmington while extending south to the northern side of Gallup.

Pinto long has said that hospitals for women and children in the Gallup area are sorely needed, and she said the impact of the pandemic has worsened that need. Allison is calling for the construction of a hospital that is comparable in size and quality to the University of New Mexico Hospital, which serves as the only children's hospital in the state.

Pinto said her reading of the situation is that it is clear such a facility needs to be built on the Navajo Nation, and she believes federal involvement in the project is the only way to get it done. Allison agrees a new facility should be built on Native land and said the existing Gallup Indian Medical Center is inadequate to serve the needs of the community. He maintains that situation is common across the Navajo Nation.

"If you did a survey of all the hospitals we do have (on the Navajo Nation) in Chinle, Tuba City, Shiprock and so on, from a grading standpoint, it does not measure very high," he said.

Allison said the high turnover rate of doctors in Native health care facilities is another problem that needs to be addressed.

Concentrating on rural needs

Allison's resume includes plenty of business and public service experience. He has served as the planning director and acting general manager of Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, and served as a finance executive and worked in the strategic planning department at the Ball Corporation. He also has served as a division director of economic development of the Navajo Nation, and board chairman and interim CEO of the Diné Development Corporation. From 2011 to 2015, he was the cabinet secretary of Indian Affairs for then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

"I've had some real good opportunities," Allison said, explaining how those experiences have positioned him to serve the public as a lawmaker. "I graduated (with a degree in economics from Brigham Young University), and my concentration has always been in rural areas. That background opened my eyes to rural needs."

Allison said he was fortunate enough to join NAPI when the organization was in its infancy and play a role in making the company what it is today.

"We hadn't even set a plow to any of those 80,000 acres that are being worked now," he said.

Given the fact that both are border towns, Allison wants to see the economic development efforts of Farmington and Gallup overlap. He also said any economic development work that benefits the Navajo Nation ultimately will have a positive effect on those neighboring communities, as well.

Allison said both San Juan and McKinley counties have major infrastructure needs that should be addressed, pointing to the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which will bring water from the San Juan River to the eastern section of the Navajo Nation, the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the city of Gallup.

"Reliable water is one of the real keys," he said.

Allison cited San Juan County's long history of energy development and noted how heavily the county has relied on that sector for its economic health. He said the collapse of energy prices is partly to blame for the downturn in the industry, but he said federal regulations and green programs also are to blame.

He expects that issue to become even more important in the years ahead. Declining revenue from oil and gas development, and coal mining will have an especially negative impact on the Navajo Nation, he said, strongly impacting the tribal government's ability to operate basic programs.

In terms of education, Allison said the pandemic has exposed the lack of adequate technology that is available to rural students. He said many of them, especially those who live on the reservation, have to travel to local businesses just to access wi-fi service and complete their class assignments under the remote-learning model that is being employed.

"The pandemic has added another level of need in how we're going to educate our kids if we don't go back to the classroom," he said.

Allison said he understands the state is in a financial crunch, and it won't be easy to find money for all those things, but he believes they are too important to be ignored.

"I don't have a magic wand, but we need to really look at and address those issues," he said. "We need to lay the framework to address the issues I'm talking about."

Following in her grandfather's footsteps

Although Pinto is the incumbent in the race, she is running for her first full term in the Legislature after being selected midway through 2019 to finish the unexpired term of her grandfather, Sen. John Pinto, who died in office.

She spent a considerable portion of her youth accompanying her grandfather on campaign trips around the district, but she said the restrictions the pandemic has placed on face-to-face contact have made it a challenge to reach voters this year.

"I wouldn't call it frustration," she said. "It's an adjustment, but it's understandable from the public's point of view. I really try to model what I should be doing. If (voters) don't see me, I hope they understand why. Something we all have to learn is change does have to occur, hopefully for the betterment of society."

Pinto has expressed some disappointment in the atmosphere she saw at the Roundhouse during her first legislative session last winter. The 30-day session was devoted largely to the budget, and she was expecting it to unfold without too much drama.

But things quickly devolved into rank partisanship, she said. Pinto is hoping for a more-productive atmosphere this year, but she said that isn't likely to happen if campaigning takes a nasty turn over the next several weeks.

"I think it depends on how people conduct themselves," she said. "That will play a big part. If we see a lot of mudslinging, that's not going to help our progress in the future."

As a schoolteacher, Pinto shares Allison's concerns about the quality of education and the lack of adequate technology for many of the district's students. She noted that negatively impacts not just the ability of students to complete their classwork, but even the means by which public officials are able to reach citizens during the pandemic.

"I think the state addressed it accordingly, but it was locally where the leadership had trouble going out and communicating with the public," she said, explaining that some of them failed to grasp the lack of basic infrastructure on parts of the reservation. " … It didn't occur to them that a lot of (people who live on the reservation) don't have Internet access, and some of them don't even have radio reception."

Pinto said the lack of running water for many Navajo homes also is a concern, but she noted that can be a touchy subject. Some people on the reservation choose to live without modern conveniences out of personal choice, she said.

"If you want to live isolated, once that water line is there, you're welcoming other neighbors," she said.

When it comes to economic development, Pinto would like to see those efforts in San Juan and McKinley counties targeted at modest projects that make good use of the job skills that people in the area already possess.

"I'd rather see people driving trucks," she said. "Most of the time, when a big project comes in, you see a lot of people coming in from out of state to fill those jobs. … I'd really like to see the low-end or smaller projects, even if they're not as high paying."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.