Principal Chief Michell Hicks won Thursday’s election in Cherokee, becoming only the second chief ever to be elected to a third term.
All incumbents in Cherokee managed to hang on to their seats in the election, signaling that voters believe the tribe is on the right track and hesitant to upset that momentum with a change in leadership.
Hicks barely eked out a victory, however, besting challenger Patrick Lambert, by just 135 votes. But the gap was wider than the slim 13-vote margin Lambert lost by in 2007 when he took on Hicks for the first time.
Hicks believes it’s the advances he’s made and the continuity he provides that won over voters. They ultimately agree, he said, with the progressive track the tribe has been on and the advances it had made in the past eight years under his leadership.
“I think the real scare for people is they were afraid progress would not continue for the tribe and we would step backwards,” Hicks said. “I think that was one of the big decision makers.”
The tribe has built a state-of-the-art K-12 school, an emergency operations center, took over its own hospital, opened a movie theater, developed new parks and greenways, attempted a facelift for blighted commercial strips, and pushed a raft of green initiatives under Hicks’ tenure. It’s also focused on cultural renewal efforts, such as the Kituwah Academy, a school for children dedicated to keeping the Cherokee language alive.
There was no doubt the race would be close, with Lambert actually beating Hicks in the primary this summer. Though Hicks got more of the vote, he and Lambert split the six districts evenly.
In Yellowhill, Painttown and Big Y/Wolftown, Hicks carried the vote. In Big Cove, Birdtown and Cherokee County/Snowbird, the tally swung in favor of rival Lambert.
Stepping down to vice chief, Larry Blythe is back in for another term, beating opponent Teresa McCoy by a mere 76 votes. McCoy, who had 49 percent of voter favor, had challenged in 2007, but lost then as well.
McCoy’s bid for vice chief cost her a council seat. She currently sits on tribal council and couldn’t run for that seat and the vice chief position simultaneously.
Her vacant council spot hosts the only new face with a victory in this election. Bo Taylor will join incumbent Perry Shell in representing Big Cove at tribal council.
Elsewhere on the reservation, the other 11 sitting tribal council members held onto their posts, all with margins of at least 35 votes between the winner and the next closest challenger.
Turn out was average, with 62 percent of the 6,704 registered voters in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians coming out for the election.
During exit poll interviews, few were willing to hazard a guess as to the winner or share their personal leanings.
Many at the polls were tight lipped about who they voted for. One man in Painttown, Bryson Catolster, refused to divulge his choice before walking back to a car plastered in signs supporting Lambert.
In Big Cove, Carol Long cited professional concerns as the reason she wouldn’t open up about her preferred candidate. Long works with a drug and alcohol addiction program in tribal court and must keep good relationships with whomever is in power for her program to be a success.
Her concern is shared by others here, where so many rely on the tribe for jobs, whether it’s at Harrahs’ Cherokee Casino or in tribal government or the many programs it provides.
Margie Taylor would say she voted for Hicks in the Yellowhill community, but the woman who exited the polls just after wouldn’t give her name, even though she said she left the box for principal chief unchecked on her ballot.
With his win, Hicks is only the second chief to serve a 12-year term. He’ll now have to live up to his biggest campaign promise — eradicating tribal debt by 2014.
Hicks had said throughout the election season that he wanted to hold onto the seat to take care of the unfinished business of tribal debt, excluding the ongoing $633 million expansion at Harrah’s.
In addition to paying down the tribal debt, he listed better social services as another priority going into the next four years.
“I want to make sure the social services system is restructured so it truly takes care of Cherokee families,” Hicks said. The tribe currently relies on the Department of Social Services in Jackson and Swain counties to provide child welfare services, including intervening in cases of child abuse or neglect. After the death of a Cherokee child in Swain County earlier this year, Hicks is leading the charge to bring social services under the tribal umbrella.
Bringing tribal services in-house is a currently a theme in Hicks’ administration.
A new justice complex is also on the to-do list this term. Tribal members are now held in neighboring county jails, but the completion of the complex will allow them to stay in Cherokee and get drug and alcohol rehabilitation if they need it.
The center will also house the tribal court, where the tribe is working to get Tribal Prosecutor Jason Smith appointed as a federal prosecutor, too, so more Cherokee cases can stay in tribal hands.
“Our goal is to become self-sustaining and obviously we are well on our way to doing that in all areas,” Hicks said.
Meanwhile, Lambert, who wasn’t taking calls after the results came in, maintained throughout the campaign that spending and debt under Hicks were out of control and not accountable to the people.
“We can do better than we are doing, we can make the tribe a better place by paying down the debt, getting more resources going towards the families,” said Lambert in July.
Hicks wouldn’t say if he’s planning to run again in 2015, but did say he wanted to pass on a solidly positioned government to the next administration.
“In four years, by the time I leave, that is what I want to leave the next leaders is a foundation that is secure,” Hicks said.
The numbers aren’t yet official and probably won’t be until at least Friday.
Candidates have five business days to protest any voting irregularities and two business days to ask for a recount if the results showed less than 2 percent difference.
Only Teresa McCoy could ask for a recount this time. She lost to Blythe by just 1.83 percent. The other 0.17 percent went to the seven write-in votes for vice chief.
Hicks retained his place by a margin of 3.22 percent. There were 80 write-in votes for principal chief.
Yellowhill, Painttown and Big Y school board members were also chosen.
Official results are scheduled for presentation to tribal council on Oct. 5.
Winners in bold; top two vote-getters win council seats.
• Michell Hicks: 2124
• Patrick Lambert: 1989
• Write-in: 80
• Larry Blythe: 2112
• Teresa McCoy: 2036
• Write-in: 7
• Alan ‘B’ Ensley: 289
• David Wolfe: 351
• Jimmy Bradley: 211
• John D. Long: 91
Big Cove Council
• Frankie Lee Bottchenbaugh: 190
• Bo Taylor: 230
• Perry Shell: 303
• Lori Taylor: 157
• Gene ‘Tunney” Crowe Jr.: 696
• Jim Owle: 691
• Terri Lee Taylor: 420
• Faye McCoy: 112
• Write-in: 1
• Tommye Saunooke: 346
• Marie Junaluska: 241
• Yona Wade: 181
• Terri Henry: 280
• Write-in: 1
Big Y/Wolftown Council
• Dennis Edward (Bill) Taylor: 525
• Mike Parker: 531
• Dwayne “Tuff” Jackson: 354
• Kathy “Rock” Burgess: 363
Cherokee County/ Snowbird Council
• Diamond Brown: 266
• Adam Wachacha: 285
• Brenda Norville: 163
• Angela Rose Kephart: 211