Cherokee candidates square off at forum

With just one month left until the election, candidates for chief and vice chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians squared off in a debate Monday night.

Candidates were asked to outline their plans to combat drug use, increase gambling revenue, improve housing on the reservation and reform business practices on the reservation, among numerous other issues. An audience of about 200 people filled the auditorium at Cherokee High School to hear the candidates’ views. While applause from the audience was discouraged, responses by the candidates occasionally led to a spontaneous eruption of cheers.

One of the most heated exchanges between the two candidates for chief was over stalled negotiations with the state for live dealers at the casino. The state won’t allow Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to have live gambling with real cards and dealers. The tribe has been lobbying Gov. Mike Easley to change his position, as live dealers would draw bigger crowds and increase profits.

Patrick Lambert, an attorney and director of the Gaming Commission, accused current Chief Michell Hicks of fouling up the negotiations with the state. Lambert said Hicks behaved poorly in Raleigh. Hicks claims he was taking a strong stand for the tribe’s rights.

The specific question posed to candidates was how the tribe could strengthen its relationship with the state. It was Hicks’ turn to answer first.

“We should play a heavy part in the next election cycle and I think we will come out in front,” Hicks said. In addition to making campaign contributions, the tribe should also make sure it has a good team of lobbyists, like it does in D.C.

“Relations are expanded by having good lobbyists in place,” Hicks said.

The question allowed Lambert to bring up one of his key campaign platforms: that he could repair the tribe’s damaged relationship with the state and hopefully get live dealers at the casino. Lambert made his case by citing a quote from Hicks that appeared in an Asheville Citizen-Times article on the failed negotiations with the Governor. Hicks told the Citizen-Times: “For him (the Governor) to question my professionalism, he needs to look in the mirror and question his own.”

Lambert said the quote was an example of Hicks’ bad attitude that turned the governor off.

“We can’t have comments like that coming out in the public. That’s why we have been stuck dead in the water the past few years. The state determines what happens in our gaming,” Lambert said.

In his rebuttal, Hicks defended his hard-line stand with the state.

“I do think the governor has a responsibility to respect the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Hicks said. Hicks said the state wanted the tribe to fork over millions of its annual casino profits to the state in exchange for getting live dealers. Hicks said that was unacceptable.

“What do we owe the state?” Hicks asked, prompting a round of applause from the audience. “We have done a tremendous amount for Western North Carolina and we deserve respect.”

It was then on to the next question — how do the candidates feel about the tribal enrollment audit — but Lambert wasn’t done talking about Hick’s performance in the state negotiations. Lambert wanted to use part of his allotted time on the enrollment audit question to rebut Hicks’ last word.

“I’ve been instructed not to allow that,” said the debate moderator, Joe Martin, editor of the Cherokee One Feather.

The debate also featured the two candidates for vice chief. Teresa McCoy, who is challenging the current Vice Chief Larry Blythe, went on the offense as the forum progressed. McCoy used several questions as a jumping off point to challenge how the tribe is being run under Blythe’s administration. McCoy questioned everything from over-spending on tribal vehicles to interference with the court system by tribal leaders. She questioned the tribe’s commitment to recycling and the lack of progress on housing for tribal members.

Blythe, meanwhile, defended the record of the current administration.

Here are some of the questions that candidates for chief answered. Questions posed to the vice chief candidates will be in next week’s paper.

How do you feel about the tribal enrollment audit? (An audit, intended to ferret out white people on the Cherokee rolls who get tribal benefits but shouldn’t be on the roll, was approved by a majority of voters in a referendum four years ago. Some white people wrongfully got on the Cherokee roll decades ago. Their descendents today are raised in Cherokee as Cherokees and might not realize they don’t qualify to be on the roll, making it potentially controversial to kick those people off.)

Hicks — “Politically it is going to be a difficult process.” Hicks said the tribe will need to have “fair and consistent policies” as the enrollment audit is completed to avoid liability issues.

Lambert — My position is very clear on this issue. If people are improperly enrolled, they will be taken off the roll.”

How do you feel about banishing repeat drug dealers from the Reservation, a policy currently being used, albeit rarely?

Lambert — “I think it has turned into more of a political issue than a way to cleanse our community.” So far, no tribal members have been banished, only non-Indians. Lambert said he would not support banishing a tribal member.

“I think the key to stopping some of these issues is treatment centers.”

Hicks — “I think there is a big difference between users of drugs and the folks who are dealing them. I believe we have to get a strong message across to folks dealing drugs in this community ‘you do not belong in this community.’”

Lambert’s rebuttal — “In elections, law and order is something easy to run on. It’s not about making statements like ‘I am strong on crime.’ It’s about caring for the people.”

If the Lumbee achieve federal recognition as an Indian tribe, how should the Cherokee respond? (The Lumbee are a group of people in Eastern North Carolina with Native American ancestry that have long sought official tribal status. Cherokee has opposed Lumbee recognition.)

Lambert — “If they are recognized, we would have to move very quickly to establish relationships with that tribe. To continue a division, if they were recognized, would be detrimental to the future of our tribe. “

Hicks — “Until they prove themselves as a tribe, we will still treat them as a group. I have fought hard on this issue. As a tribe we need to continue to educate legislators about how controversial it is. They need to prove themselves if they want to be federally recognized.”

Is TERO working? (TERO, or Tribal Employment Rights Office, is a program that gives businesses owned by enrolled tribal members preference in doing business and with tribal government. The tribe gives preference to TERO certified businesses when awarding bids.)

Lambert — “TERO is broken. TERO has turned into the protection of certain private business owners.”

TERO is meant to support Indian-owned businesses. “It is not there to be sure that certain businesses can overcharge the tribe. TERO is a good process if we get it right.”

Hicks — By supporting businesses owned by tribal members, TERO has provided work for tribal members who previously had to travel off the reservation to find jobs.

“There have been a lot of benefits to the program. Should we continue to evaluate it? Absolutely.”

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