Incumbent Hicks wins in tight Cherokee election
The election for chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians came down to a mere 30 votes last week, and apparently isn’t over yet.
The current chief, Michell Hicks, narrowly beat his challenger Patrick Lambert, the director of the Gaming Commission. A hand recount of the ballots was held Tuesday morning (Sept. 11), but results of the recount were not known as of press time.
The recount was largely a formality and would be unlikely to produce vastly different results than the machines that scan the ballots on election night. But the results of the election could be thrown into question by a series of protests from voters who claim they were turned away from the polls, and potentially a lawsuit or two over everything from voting protocols not being followed at specific precincts to gerrymandering.
Four residents in the Wolfetown community had filed protests as of press time claiming they were turned away from the polls on Election Day. They claim their names were not on the roster at their assigned precinct where they had always voted. Others are rumored to have had a similar experience but have not filed formal protests yet. The deadline to file protests is Thursday.
The Cherokee Election board will hold a hearing on the protests within the week. Shirley Reagan, chairman of the election board, said she can’t predict the outcome of the hearing.
“I don’t want to comment until we have the hearing and try to research what happened,” Reagan said. “First we have to see if the protests are valid.”
If they are, it is unclear what will happen. The four people so far who claim they were denied their right to vote aren’t enough to sway the 30-vote margin in the chief’s race. However, a tribal council candidate in Wolfetown — Tuff Jackson — lost by only three votes. His race potentially could have been affected.
The election board could allow only those four people to vote. Or a whole new election for all the races on the ballot — including chief — could be held for the Wolfetown precinct. If that happens, the heat will be on to turn out every possible voter by both chief candidates in what could amount to a rematch.
Reagan said the election board would ask the tribe’s legal counsel to help them determine the proper course of action. The tribe’s legal department works directly under Hicks.
As the executive director of the Gaming Commission, Hicks does not have direct authority to fire Lambert for running against him. Indirectly, however, Hicks does have control over Lambert’s post. The chief appoints the three members who comprise the Gaming Commission board. That board, in turn, has hiring-and-firing authority over Lambert.
The Gaming Commission is an oversight agency required by state law to enforce regulations and policies that govern the gaming industry. It is not involved in daily operations or steering the casino’s future — it did not play a role in the decision earlier this year to embark on a $650 million expansion, for example. The business end of the casino is managed by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise. The Gaming Commission, meanwhile, is a regulatory body.
Why be chief?
The position of chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a full-time job that pays about $129,000. The tribe’s government is set up similar to that of the United States: the chief is like the president, while tribal council is like Congress. The chief can veto bills passed by tribal council, and the tribal council can over-ride a veto with enough votes.
Despite the checks and balances provided by tribal council, the chief has large discretion over tribal operations. He can unilaterally hire and fire some 1,000 tribal employees. He can create, eliminate or restructure tribal departments. He also determines the mission, direction and initiatives of tribal departments.
While the tribe’s general budget is approved by tribal council, the chief controls how the tribe’s money is spent day-to-day — whether it’s on downtown revitalization, anti-drug campaigns, a new tribal housing project or a lobbying trip to D.C.
The tribe has 13,500 members. About two-thirds live on the Cherokee Reservation.