The July 7 primary is drawing closer in Cherokee, when the field for principal chief will narrow from five to two.
Current Principal Chief Michell Hicks is making a play for his third four-year term. He’ll again be facing his 2007 rival, Patrick Lambert, whom he defeated by a mere 13 votes to reclaim the seat.
Lambert is an attorney and head of the Tribal Gaming Commission Enterprise, and brought a lawsuit protesting the 2007 election results that was rejected by the tribal Supreme Court.
Also in the race are some newcomers, but they are in no sense novices to the hurly burly politics of the tribe.
Longtime political activist Mary ‘Missy’ Crowe has stepped back into the fray, after protesting the results of the 2003 election, when she failed to win a seat on tribal council.
Juanita Wilson, a former assistant to Chief Hicks, is also coming back to have another try at the top spot. She ran in the last primary, but threw her name in at the last minute and campaigned little in the primary run-up.
Gary Ledford, public safety director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is the only candidate who hasn’t run for office before. That’s because his 20-year military career, which ended in 2006, precluded him from taking office. He’s been in public safety with the tribe since 2007, and he believes his two decades of public service have prepared him for taking the post.
The candidate list isn’t yet official — that won’t come out until absentee ballots are printed in mid-May — but registration for new candidates has already closed.
One of the issues likely to dominate the debate this year is, of course, the economy. Most of the five candidates listed it as one of the major issues facing the tribe in the upcoming four years, and Chief Hicks, the tribe’s former finance officer, is focusing his campaign on the basis of his fiscal leadership.
The Eastern Band, unlike many other local governments, isn’t hemorrhaging funds and doesn’t appear to be facing cuts thanks to its glittering cash cow, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Half of what the casino pulls in is distributed evenly among members, while the other half goes to tribal operations. But not everyone is pleased with how that’s handled.
“There seems to be very little planning in how we’re spending money, even to develop, even to expand the casino,” said Wilson, who also mentioned the Sequoyah National Golf Club (a tribally owned operation in Whittier) as a concerning drain on tribal finances, and she characterized it as an unwise decision by tribal leaders.
Crowe echoed those sentiments of fiscal caution.
“We have seen a lot of things happen because of the economy, and they do have a direct effect to our economy here on the boundary. I feel that we need to start working towards other funding. There’s a lot at stake, so we have to be diligent in protecting our sovereignty and our assets,” said Crowe, suggesting that maybe relying solely on Harrah’s to continue buoying the tribe through tough economic times might not be the best idea.
Ledford’s also pitching diminished dependency on the casino.
“At very great financial risk, we’ve put all of our eggs into one flimsy non-double-weave basket. We have effectively turned our back on the small businessman by focusing all efforts on the casino, in a declining casino market,” said Ledford. “You have to — not should, have to — drive down your debt, build your cash reserves and eliminate or postpone unnecessary expansion projects that increase that debt.”
Meanwhile, incumbent Hicks is seeking to protect his perch by pointing to his accomplishments at the helm as the economic downturn has deepened.
“The biggest concern for this tribe right now is paying the debt off,” said Hicks. And, he said, as a CPA with 23 years of tribal service under his belt, he’s just the guy to keep working on it.
“I’ve helped bring us through the worst economy we’ve ever seen, and the tribe is doing great,” said Hicks.
Money’s not the only issue on the table in this race, though. Transparency is a buzzword that keeps surfacing when candidates discuss what led them into the fray.
Lambert said the desire for transparency is part of what pulled him back into the political arena.
“One of the things that we’re going to do is make sure that there’s audits and assurance of fairness and that all the tribal audits are made public,” said Lambert. “People are just looking for a change and that’s primarily the reason I got back into it.”
Crowe said that she, too, is lobbying for a more informative government than what she sees now.
“I’ve been the first one to be screaming transparency, all the way back to 1986,” said Crowe. “We have to be vigilant in knowing exactly what the government is doing with our land and our money. Would you not want the CEO of a business to allow the shareholders to know exactly what’s going on with that business?”
Wilson, who has seen the cogs of the tribe’s executive branch turning from the inside, said increased government transparency is one of her top campaign priorities and what pushed her to run in 2007 and now.
“Our government isn’t transparent. We don’t have our own constitution, despite the fact that we are a sovereign nation,” said Wilson. “It amazes me that we’re making the kind of money we are from the casino and we’re cutting programs. I want to get in and figure out exactly where things are going, how things are being spent, because it just doesn’t add up for me.
“I’m not on a witch hunt, I simply want to do this for the people.”
Hicks himself called for openness in campaign-finance disclosure during a debate with Lambert in the last election.
But as the two-term sitting leader, Hicks will be on the defense when it comes to touting the merits of open government. It’s an issue that’s popped up for the chief before, when Joe Martin, former editor of tribal newspaper The One Feather, brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against the tribe, saying Hicks tried to quash unflattering coverage of the tribe in the paper, then pushed Martin out when he didn’t acquiesce. The suit settled out of court late last year.
Though the primary is still two months out, Hicks is already mounting a concentrated offensive to win the affections and ear of the voting public.
Though it’s hardly a gauge of public opinion or popularity, if judging by publicity alone, Hicks takes the race by a landslide.
It is difficult to drive a few hundred yards on any major thoroughfare in Cherokee without encountering at least one sign seeking a vote for his re-election. And then there are the two massive tractor-trailers in downtown Cherokee, parked less than a mile from one another, draped with gargantuan banners that bear his stoic image and the phrase ‘Re-Elect Hicks’ in 10-foot-high letters.
At a re-elect-Chief-Hicks cookout this week, he told gathered supporters that he was going back for a third helping because he felt that there was more left to do.
“My work isn’t finished yet, at this point. We’ve accomplished a lot over the last eight years, but I’ve got a lot more that I want to do on behalf of this tribe,” said Hicks.
And he’s got the weight of two campaigns behind him, which offers a high level of brand recognition among voters; a few at the rally were sporting T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Chicks for Hicks,’ and though they planned for 400, stores of burgers and hot dogs were running low only an hour in.
But other candidates think that their freshness is what offers them an advantage. Wilson said she doesn’t see the benefits of keeping a many-term chief in office.
“I’m going in with a mindset of being one term,” said Wilson. “I supported [Hicks] in his first term. I went to work for him. And after the first three-and-a-half years, the policy shifted,” which she said she feels is due in part to the pressure for re-election.
Hicks himself, though, didn’t point to his eight-year incumbency as a challenge in this year’s campaign, but seemed to see it as an asset.
His greatest challenge, he said, will be getting voters out to the polls.
“This can’t be a lazy election,” said Hicks.
Challenger Lambert, though, believes this election will be about changing, not staying, the course.
“This election’s going to be about the tribe and trying to change the direction of the tribe,” said Lambert.
Also on the ballot
Elsewhere in primary battles, the field is broad, but not quite as crowded as it has been in previous elections. Vying for vice chief, the only other position elected by the tribe at-large, are former opponents Teresa McCoy, currently a tribal council member for Big Cove, and Larry Blythe, the incumbent. Also running for that seat are Carroll ‘Peanut’ Crowe and Joey Owle.
The six tribal council districts, which operate on two-year terms, have anywhere between four and eight hopefuls, and each group will be whittled to four in the primary, with two winners chosen. All sitting tribal council members are running for re-election.
The general election will be held September 1, but the last chance for voter registration is June 8.