Carlyle Begay, a Native American state senator from Arizona, grew up in an all-Democrat family on a Navajo reservation. Naturally, Begay also became a Democrat. He was appointed to the Arizona Senate in 2013 and elected to a full term in 2014.
But after several years in public life, Begay last week announced he’s switching parties, embracing the GOP. He told Opportunity Lives that his choice stemmed from his legislative experience: it was Republicans in the Arizona State Senate who were actually willing to help fight for policies that bolstered impoverished tribal areas. It was his GOP colleagues, Begay said, who pushed for school choice and expand educational opportunities for Native Americans.
Instead of a partisan, label-driving choice, Begay said his move across the aisle was “about self-determination and self-empowerment … I felt like the Democratic Party that historically is viewed as the champion of the little guy in the past two years hasn’t been that champion with me.”
Since last week, phone calls and messages have poured in about his announcement, which Begay made in a dramatic video shot via drones on his ancestral homeland.
“My hope is to follow the direction of my ancestors and embrace progress by helping the Republican Party as they build a bridge connecting those who need and want a chance with those who can provide that chance,” he said in the video. “With an open mind and heart, I clearly see that the Republican Party is a Party of progress, the party of opportunity and moving forward, my party.”
The reaction to Begay was swift and, at times, brutal online, though he’s also received considerable goodwill from constituents and family members.
“They’ve gone out of their way to offer words of encouragement and support,” Begay said in an interview with Opportunity Lives. “It was expected, in my view, that there would be those that were critical of the decision, but it seems to me that there has been more support than criticism for my decision. In my view, it was a decision based on the best interest of the constituents and the district that I represent.”
Begay said the scrutiny has been more difficult for his parents and wife, who are sensitive to criticism of their son and husband.
“It’s important for them to realize that my decision was done with intent,” he said. “The decision wasn’t about the title itself. The decision was based on the frustration I’ve felt for the past three years and the ability to push forward and the ability to be a voice for communities that have not had a voice and frankly have been ignored in the political process here in Arizona.”
During meetings with Native American youth, Begay said he is often struck by their feelings of dystopia, isolation and hopelessness. He is dismayed by the low educational attainment, high unemployment, alcoholism and suicide rates within the Native American community, and he wants to spark positive change through self-reliance, rather than government programs, which he says have failed. Begay pushed back against some critics who question his loyalty to his people.
“So I’ve asked them ‘Why are you a Democrat? Explain to me, especially in terms of looking at the past decade, what has the Party done to move our people forward?’” he said. “For me the future that I see, the future that I hope that we can envision for the viewpoint that I align with this mentality of self empowerment and self determination.”
Begay is up for re-election next year, the second of his two-year term. To those who accuse Begay of political posturing, he points out that party registration in his district is 50 percent Democrat and just 19 percent Republican.
“To those who have criticized me and saying I’m an opportunist or there’s something in it for me, if that were the case why would I put myself at a significant disadvantage to be re-elected? This decision has never been about the position or the title. I’ve always tried to put myself in a position to be a voice in a community that has long not had a voice and really change that ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic that has existed for so long.”
The prospect of running for re-election next year does not daunt Begay, who said he enjoys the challenge “because, one it makes me work harder, but it’s also an attempt to make me work hard and change the perspective of youth toward empowerment and self determination.”
Read the original article here on Opportunity Lives…
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.