Archived News

Chief candidates weigh in on issues

cherokeeIt’s election season in Cherokee, and with the long-time chief Michell Hicks opting not to seek re-election, five candidates are vying for the tribe’s top office.

Depending who you ask, there’s a lot at stake. 

“We need change,” said Timmy Ray Smith, a candidate who’s currently working as the tribe’s youth sports coordinator. “We’ve had 12 years of things going one way, and it’s time to give the power back to the people.” 

“It’s very clear that we’ve got to make sure that deals aren’t done in the back room. We have to make sure these things are brought out to light,” said Patrick Lambert, a candidate who just ended 22 years as executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission. “Some of the recent things that have happened, that’s the way people feel, that they’re disconnected from their tribal government.” 

“I decided to run because I got tired of seeing how the tribal employees are being treated in our jobs and all the false promises that are being given out by the chief and the vice chief and Tribal Council,” said Sam Reed, a magistrate judge in Cherokee Tribal Court. 

The other two candidates, Gene “Tunney” Crowe and David Wolfe, currently sit on Tribal Council after having served multiple terms. Neither has responded to numerous requests for interview — phone calls, text messages and in-person requests to set up a time — given over a period of one month. 

Related Items


Reining in the office

The candidates who did agree to interviews with The Smoky Mountain News listed a number of issues that they’d like to tackle if elected to the tribe’s top job, but they all said that a top priority would be reining in the power and compensation of the very office they’re running to hold. 

“I believe that the tribe has expanded the pay of elected officials in very large amounts over the last 10 years especially,” Lambert said. 

All three candidates interviewed said that they would plan to get rid of retirement benefits for the spouses of elected officials and asserted that, when it comes to the public uproar that’s been simmering ever since council gave itself $10,000 raises and backpay checks in the October budget — some councilmembers got as much as $33,000 in backpay — they’re on the public’s side. 

“A couple of these people [on council] are my kinfolk, and I wasn’t even going to vote for them,” Reed said of his response to council’s actions.  

In his opinion, the raises were illegal, Lambert said. It’s hard to say whether councilmembers acted illegally on purpose, he said, but it’s apparent that the issue was pushed through council quickly and that members did not have all the information on hand necessary to make a sound decision. 

Part of the problem with tribal government now, Reed and Smith said, is that the chief has too much power. They talked about the need for a real constitution for Cherokee that clearly spells out the powers of each branch of government and the checks and balances to keep them straight. 

“Everybody here just about answers to him directly in one way or another,” Reed said of his experience working at the courthouse, “and if you had your constitution here you wouldn’t have that. The chief’s office is responsible for the day-to-day activities of this tribe. It’s not for him to be telling us what to do at the courthouse.”


A free press

Tied up in that issue of the chief’s power is the question of a free press. Cherokee has a newspaper, The Cherokee One Feather, but if you have a conversation with any tribal member, it probably won’t be long before they begin lamenting the lack of news coverage on the Qualla Boundary. The One Feather belongs to the tribe, and the chief has ultimate power over what is printed there. 

The newspaper did not print anything about the raises and backpay that council gave itself last fall and which many claim were illegal. Nor did it write about the demand letter an attorney sent on behalf of a group of tribal members, threatening to sue Tribal Council if they did not rescind the resolution creating the raises. No article appeared in The One Feather about the controversial adoption of the Baker Roll as the base roll for the tribe, and the paper wrote nothing about the disputed $10 million allocation council made for technology upgrades in tribal operations. 

Most Cherokee people will say that’s because One Feather staff are afraid of being fired if they write something unfavorable. The three candidates for chief interviewed for this story say things would be different under their administration. 

“Cherokee deserves a strong free press, period,” Lambert said. “It’s just that simple. That would be something I would try every day to make sure happened.”

“Bad or good, it needs to be told,” Reed agreed. “It needs to be put out there to the people to let them know what’s exactly going on here.”

“If the governor or senators or congressmen or women are not doing their jobs, those papers point it out, and that needs to be done here,” Smith said. “This paper should have free rein.”



The tribe also lacks transparency and accountability in its leadership, the candidates said. All three said getting government business out in the open would be a priority. 

“What I want to do is work toward making sure that all the major issues are brought out for public comment, that we’re not going to be making decisions in the back room,” Lambert said. 

One of Lambert’s ideas for his tenure as chief would be to give council a quarterly report, rather than the annual one the chief now gives. Something pretty straightforward, he said, that would detail revenues out, revenues in, what’s in the bank account — the basics that show where the government stands. 

Smith agreed that more frequent reports would be a must for the new chief’s administration, saying he’d give reports “every doggone week” if that’s what it took for people to understand what was going on in the chief’s office. 

“You have to have transparency,” Smith said. “That’s why nobody trusts each other nowadays, because everything happens behind closed doors and in secret.”

“They feel that they’re always hiding money somewhere,” Reed said of tribal members’ perception of their government. “They just want someone to get in there who will tell them what’s happening.”



Unfortunately, part of what happens on the reservation is drug abuse, the candidates said. The next chief will have to be involved in crafting policies that fight the problem. 

The tribe has a new hospital, just completed last year, so figuring out how to leverage that resource to do the most good will be a must. The chief will also need to be familiar with the needs of the law enforcement and health professionals who deal directly with the drug problem and get them included in the budget. 

“I’m going to try every way possible to get out of the four walls of the office and find out what is needed by our law enforcement and what is needed by our medical professionals and make sure to get those into the budget for everyone,” said Lambert, who was a drug and alcohol counselor early in his career. “That’s what I will be focused on.”

Reed agreed, adding that the police department could do with some extra manpower and possibly some reorganization. 

“That issue’s not being handled because the majority of the time, we have four officers out here on patrol for the entire reservation,” he said of the drug problem. 

Smith would also like to see more done on the treatment side, perhaps creating a new rehab center on the reservation.

“If we do a rehab center, it has to be a full-fledged, no-holds-barred rehab center where people can’t come and go as they please,” he said. 



Another task of the next chief will be to define and pursue sovereignty for the tribe. 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation, its own entity living on a fraction of the land that it used to control before North Carolina became a British colony. 

But what does sovereignty mean? And what does it look like in practice? The Qualla Boundary is not an island. Cherokee’s roads are built by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Its residents sport North Carolina license plates. Its criminal cases are handled by a murky combination of tribal, state and federal courts. The list goes on. 

“If we were really, truly sovereign, why would we take money from the federal government to run some programs?” Reed asked. “Why would we take money from the state government to hand out WIC coupons? Why wouldn’t we issue our own drivers licenses and our own car tags?

“There’s a lot to sovereignty, and people have a lot of different opinions on what it is.”

Lambert said he’d like to see the idea of sovereignty used less like a club and more like a shield. 

“Sovereignty is our protection, not our sword, so you won’t be hearing me come down against a government with the county or state trying to use sovereignty as a sword,” Lambert said. “It’s going to be used as our protection.” 

Sovereignty should come into play, he said, with issues such as the tribe’s ability to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence, or to adjudicate issues of child abuse and place children in foster families — now given through the tribe’s recent achievement of creating its own department of social services. Sovereignty should be used as shield to allow the tribe to take care of its own. 

“That would be one of my biggest concerns is making sure those services are done in the right way and our children and families are protected,” Lambert said. 

With the issues laid out, candidates have until June 4 to convince voters of their fitness for the job. During the primary elections that day, Cherokee people will cast their votes for chief, vice chief, school board and Tribal Council representatives. The top two contenders for each seat will then advance to the general election Sept. 4.



The candidates

Gene “Tunney” Crowe, Jr.*

• Experience: Represents Birdtown on Tribal Council and has previously worked as chief of the Cherokee Indian Police Department and director of security and surveillance for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Served eight years in the U.S. Navy. 

• Education: Business degree from Montreat College. 

• Party affiliation: Democrat

• Recent votes: Voted for council’s salary increases in October and against protests of the raises in November. Voted for a $10 million pot of money for unspecified technology upgrades for tribal operations in February. Voted in favor of adopting the Baker Roll as the tribe’s base roll.

Patrick Lambert

• Age: 51

• Experience: Served 22 years as executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission and owns the Cherokee Grand Hotel and Car Wash Express in Cherokee. Licensed attorney, U.S. Army veteran and former drug and alcohol counselor for the Chemical Dependency Unit at Cherokee Indian Hospital.

• Education: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law.

• Party affiliation: Democrat

• Goal for office: Bring more people into the middle class.

Sam Frell Reed

• Age: 48 

• Experience: Has worked four years as a magistrate judge in Cherokee Tribal Court with past jobs including sheriff’s deputy in Buncombe County and sergeant in the Cherokee Indian Police Department. Served eight years in the U.S. Marines. 

• Education: Magistrate school at UNC Chapel Hill; law enforcement trainings at N.C. Justice Academy and Southwestern Community College. 

• Party affiliation: Democrat 

• Goal for office: Make things better for tribal employees. 

Timmy Ray Smith

• Age: 42

• Experience: Currently works as the tribe’s youth sports coordinator, with previous jobs including teacher at Cherokee Middle School and elementary school security guard. 

• Education: Studied sports management at SCC and Western Carolina University but does not hold a degree. 

• Party affiliation: Democrat

• Goal for office: Cut exorbitant salaries, including the chief’s. 

David Wolfe*

• Experience: Represents Yellowhill on Tribal Council and spent 14 years working for UPS. 

• Education: Business degree from WCU. 

• Recent votes: Voted for council’s salary increases in October and against protests of the raises in November. Voted for a $10 million pot of money for unspecified technology upgrades for tribal operations in February. Voted in favor of adopting the Baker Roll as the tribe’s base roll.

• Party affiliation: Unaffiliated 

* Did not return requests for interview. 

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.