In Cherokee this week, tribal elections are edging ever closer, with a primary scheduled for Thursday that will whittle the field for principal chief from five to two.
While the holiday weekend was dominated by campfires and fireworks, voters and candidates were gearing up for the political pyrotechnics of last-minute campaigning.
Around the Qualla Boundary, last-minute candidates forums were held to give voters a last chance to hear from those vying for their support.
Among the voters, however, the race doesn’t seem locked up, with many either tight-lipped or undecided on where they’ll throw their support.
Behind the counter at Big Cove Grocery, Cindi Standingdeer is one of them. She voted in the last election and she’s been following this one, intending to vote.
“No, not yet,” said Standingdeer, when asked if she’s picked her candidate. “I’m undecided.”
Back in downtown Cherokee, Esther Roach said the same thing.
She works at the Econolodge but had popped into Food Lion for a quick shopping trip. She missed the last election, but said she’s going to hit the polls this time.
“I’m not quite sure yet who I’ll vote for,” said Roach.
Elsewhere in the aisles, a few locals stocking up for the holiday weekend were oblivious to the upcoming election.
But that’s not for lack of effort on the candidates’ part. At the start of election season this spring, it was only sitting Chief Michell Hicks who was fighting the publicity battle.
In the intervening months, however, other candidates have leapt onto the bandwagon in a big way.
Signs for Patrick Lambert, Hicks’ challenger in the 2007 race, can be seen lining the streets not only in central Cherokee, but the outlying communities, as well. Car magnets in parking lots from Harrah’s to the Holiday Inn implore motorists to vote for Lambert.
Meanwhile, on the road leading to Cindi Standingdeer’s grocery, signs for Teresa McCoy, a candidate for vice chief, adorn telephone poles and lawns alike.
McCoy is a native of Big Cove and currently their sitting council member, but she’s going back for another try at vice chief, a race she lost twice before to incumbent Vice Chief Larry Blythe.
This time, though the field for vice chief is currently four deep — including Carroll “Peanut” Crowe and Jim Owle — McCoy has already laid down the gauntlet, looking for a rematch with Blythe come the final election in September.
Challengers this year point to the smaller checks tribal residents are receiving from casino profits and the tribe’s record debt load due to an aggressive building campaign. Sitting leaders are highlighting the tribe’s progress, improved status in the region and economic advancements.
Hicks goes for a three-peat
Principal Chief Michell Hicks is trying for his third term, and if he’s successful, would only be the second chief in history to serve 12 years.
Hicks will easily make it past this week’s primary, but could face a tough race in the final election to be held on Sept. 1.
Four years ago, Hicks won by only 13 votes against challenger Patrick Lambert, who is running again this time.
Along with Lambert, there are three other candidates on the ballot for chief — Gary Ledford, Juanita Wilson and Missy Crowe — but only one will go on to share the ballot with Hicks in September.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has roughly 14,000 enrolled members, not all of whom live on the Qualla Boundary but are scattered across the country. Only members who come to the polls in person are allowed to vote, except under special circumstances like those in the military or disabled.
A primary will be held for principal chief, vice chief, tribal council and school board.
Polling sites will be open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 7.