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Cherokee election rematch enters into final days

Election season is closing in Cherokee, where races for principal chief, vice chief, tribal council and school board members will culminate when voters hit the polls on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Incumbent chief Michell Hicks is trying to keep a grip on the position for a third term. If he’s successful, Hicks would be just the second chief to hold office for 12 years.

His challenger is Patrick Lambert, long-time attorney for the Tribal Gaming Commission, which regulates the tribe’s gaming operations.

This is the second round between Lambert and Hicks, who sparred in the 2007 election. That race had a contentious ending, with Hicks besting his opponent by only a handful of votes. Though Lambert challenged the outcome in the tribal court, the count stood and he was put off for another four years.

But unlike 2007, Lambert won the primary earlier in the summer, taking 46 percent of the vote. Hicks garnered 40 percent of the roughly 3,000 voters who turned out.

At the time, Hicks said he was confident in his voting base, especially given that only around half of registered voters cast ballots in the July primary.

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In the vice chief race, it’s another rematch. Larry Blythe is running to maintain his seat, while current council member Teresa McCoy is trying to take his job after a loss to Blythe in 2007. She took the primary, with 39 percent of the vote. But Blythe wasn’t far behind, taking in 36 percent.

The issues that have defined this election centered around Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, the tribe’s central money-making venture. Questions about the economy, fiscal responsibility, diversification and services to tribal members all eventually came back to the casino, and what it was doing for the tribes 13,500 members.

Per capita checks, the payouts given annually to tribal members from casino revenues, were down this year, and some questioned the wisdom of continuing to pin the tribe’s financial hopes on Harrah’s alone.

Whoever wins the post on Wednesday will deal not only with falling revenues and a still-unfinished casino expansion, but also the impending negotiations over live dealers.

Gamblers at Harrah’s currently don’t enjoy the casino experience that Las Vegas patrons do; the tribe’s contract with the state doesn’t allow table games such as craps and roulette or live dealers at poker and black jack tables.

Last week, two top Republican state senators travelled to Cherokee to discuss the idea of Vegas-style gaming there.

The General Assembly has already pledged to vote on the issue in the new legislative session that starts Sept. 12.

The new principal chief, however, would still have to navigate negotiations with Gov. Beverly Perdue, and such talks can at times be tricky.

The last attempt to bring live dealers to the casino stalled after negotiations between Chief Hicks and then-Gov. Mike Easley disintegrated. At various times throughout the campaign, Lambert has charged that Hicks mishandled the situation.

Polls open at 6 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and close at 6 p.m. Registered voters who are in line at 6 p.m. will be allowed to vote.

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