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Incumbents suffer in Tribal Council elections

Incumbents suffer in Tribal Council elections

If the results of the June 1 primary elections are any indication, incumbent Tribal Council members could be in trouble come the General Election Sept. 7. 

Councilmember Marie Junaluska, of Painttown, won’t even make it to the general election, coming in sixth place in a field of eight with 78 votes, or 11 percent. Two more councilmembers barely squeaked by, making the cut with fourth-place finishes. Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown, finished fourth in a field of six, with just two votes separating his 173 votes from the fifth-place candidate. 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Anita Welch Lossiah, of Yellowhill, was also fourth in a field of six, earning 100 votes, and Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, was in third place out of six with 149 votes. 

“It all comes down to the Lambert Effect,” said Sage Dunston, chief of staff during the administration of former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert.  

How they fared
Primary Election results roll in to Cherokee

With the Primary Election coming just one week after the Tribal Council voted 9-3 to remove Lambert from office, it hasn’t been uncommon to hear the impeachment issue and the upcoming election discussed in the same breath. Lambert, who was elected in 2015 with 71 percent of the vote, has maintained a stalwart following even as Tribal Council threatened — and followed through on — impeachment. 

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Lossiah, who voted to remove Lambert, agrees that the impeachment issue affected the election results but said she stands by the decision, though she said it’s something “we wish never happened and we never had to venture into.” 

“It divided our communities, it divided families, it divided neighbors and it impacted in a negative way across the tribe and all of our members worldwide,” she said. “It also affected the ability to get out and campaign like you normally would. I love talking to everybody door-to-door and I wasn’t able to do that. I certainly look forward to doing that now.”

Similarly, Taylor said in a statement, “There are many of you who I didn’t get to sit down and talk to and visit with before the Primary but I’m going to make it a point to get out and talk to as many of you as I can before the General Election.”

On May 26, nine of the 12 councilmembers found Lambert guilty on eight of 12 articles of impeachment. Charges, among others, included that he had illegally entered his hotel into a contract with the casino and that he had executed contracts without the proper approvals. Lambert defended his conduct during a seven-hour testimony before Tribal Council. Throughout the process, he maintained that he had committed no impeachable offense and attributed the impeachment effort to retaliation for his efforts to expose corruption in tribal government. The FBI is currently conducting multiple investigations following a forensic audit that Lambert commissioned and then turned over to the federal government. 

“High turnout and low vote counts are bad for incumbents but is good for change that Cherokee families so desperately need,” Lambert wrote on his Facebook page. “As I committed to you before, I am going to stay engaged and will continue to fight for a better and brighter future for you. But it will take all of us, so join me and Cherokee families all across this boundary and vote for new leadership on Tribal Council. We have already struck a major blow, and you can do it again in the General Election in September.”

Lossiah, meanwhile, feels good about her chances in the Sept. 7 General Election. 

“I am very positive and optimistic about the upcoming election,” she said. “Whoever goes into those positions I hope they’re ready to come together in unity for our tribe.”

The number of votes cast this time around — each voter is eligible to vote for two candidates — was 34.2 percent higher than in the 2013 primary, which is the last Primary Election without a chief’s race. Excluding Snowbird and Painttown, which did not have primaries in 2015, the number of votes cast June 1 was 1 percent higher than during the 2015 Primary Election, when both the chief and vice chief seats were up for election. 

However, Shirley Reagan of the Board of Elections classified voter turnout as “about typical” for a Primary Election during a year without chief’s elections, saying that turnout in 2013 was lower than normal. Overall, voter turnout in 2017 was 43 percent, with the number varying by community from 26 percent to 47 percent. 

Voter turnout was indeed higher in 2009, the last Primary Election before 2013 without a chief’s race. Excluding Yellowhill, which did not have a primary in 2009, the number of votes cast for Tribal Council was 17.6 percent higher than in 2017. However, the 2009 primary also included a referendum question on whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, a controversial issue that likely boosted turnout.  

In terms of share of the vote, only one of the nine councilmembers running for reelection did as well or better than in the 2015 elections — Richard French, of Big Cove. French, who placed third with 13.8 percent of the vote in a field of eight during the 2015 primaries, returned in 2017 as the community’s top vote-getter with 22 percent of the vote in a field of 10. 

Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, also did well, coming in as the top vote-getter with 21.9 percent of the vote in a field of eight. In 2015, Painttown didn’t have a primary election, so there’s no direct comparison to go by — in the 2015 general election, Saunooke garnered 30.1 percent of the vote with three names on the ballot and two write-in candidates. Both French and Saunooke opposed impeachment.

Some other incumbents were also the top vote-getters in their communities — Councilmembers Albert Rose and Travis Smith took the top two spots in Birdtown, and Councilmember Bo Crowe was by far the top vote-getter in Wolfetown — but their performance was weak compared to 2015 numbers. In the 2015 Birdtown primary, 301 votes had separated Rose, in first place, from the fourth-place candidate. This time around, only 25 votes separate Rose, still in first place, from the fourth-place candidate. While the spread is much larger in Wolfetown — Crowe, in first place, is 218 votes ahead of Chairman Taylor, in fourth place — Crowe’s 29.6 percent share of the vote is smaller than the 35 percent he got in 2015, when three more candidates were in the mix. 

With Tribal Council voting to remove Lambert exactly one week before the election, the impeachment issue was likely at the forefront of voters’ minds as they went to the polls. However, the short timeframe limited Lambert’s ability to campaign for candidates directly. He’s made it clear that he intends to play a more active role heading toward the General Election. 

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to get together and we’re going to organize,” Lambert said in a speech to his supporters after the impeachment decision May 25. “We’re going to beat them this fall at the polls.” 

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