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cherokeeFormer Principal Chief Michell Hicks was all set to take over the tribe’s highest-paying job — director of the Tribal Gaming Commission — when his political term ended Oct. 5, but now that offer’s off the table.

fr hicksThe day after Chief-Elect Patrick Lambert takes his oath of office, Principal Chief Michell Hicks will take over Lambert’s old job as executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission.

Cherokee will have a new chief when Election Day concludes this September.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who is serving his third four-year term, will not seek re-election, but five candidates have filed in hopes of taking his place.

Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told a U.S. Senate committee in testimony on July 23 that gaming on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina has had a “dramatic impact” on the lives of Cherokee families and especially children in ways “we never dreamed possible.”

fr livegamingNorth Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue and other dignitaries gathered at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel Tuesday to officially mark the introduction of live table games at the casino.

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

Cherokee is currently dry, with no beer, wine or liquor sold in restaurants or convenience stores — with the exception of Harrah’s Casino. Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is okay with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine turning up on the shelves of gas stations and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks wants the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribal ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from cropping up on rural areas of the reservation as well, like the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might other leave the reservation in search of alcohol in Cherokee.

However, many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

Members of the Eastern Band are expected to vote on the referendum in April and can approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

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.

 

Election results

Winners in bold; top two vote-getters win council seats.

Principal Chief

• Michell Hicks: 2124

• Patrick Lambert: 1989

• Write-in: 80

Total: 4193


Vice Chief

• Larry Blythe: 2112

• Teresa McCoy: 2036

• Write-in: 7

Total: 4155


Yellowhill Council

• 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

 

Birdtown Council

• Gene ‘Tunney” Crowe Jr.: 696

• Jim Owle: 691

• Terri Lee Taylor: 420

• Faye McCoy: 112

• Write-in: 1

 

Painttown Council

• 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

The field was narrowed from five to two yesterday in the race for principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

When votes were tallied following the July 7 primary election, incumbent Michell Hicks and Patrick Lambert, Hicks’ challenger in the 2007 election, emerged as the top vote-getters. They will now compete for the top seat in September’s general election.

In the race for vice chief, incumbent Larry Blythe and current tribal council member Teresa McCoy will move on to the next round. That matchup is also a repeat of the 2007 race.

In both contests, the incumbent garnered fewer overall votes than the challenger.

Races for the 12 tribal council seats were also trimmed to four candidates. The general election on Sept. 1 will elect a principal chief, vice chief, two tribal council members from each of the six communities, as well as school board members.

 

Birdtown

Michell Hicks: 313

Patrick Lambert: 418

Juanita Wilson: 64

Gary Ledford: 30

Missy Crowe: 10

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 146

Joey Owle: 58

Larry Blythe: 312

Teresa McCoy: 313

 

Yellowhill

Michell Hicks: 167

Patrick Lambert: 156

Juanita Wilson: 44

Gary Ledford: 13

Missy Crowe: 14

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 75

Joey Owle: 21

Larry Blythe: 128

Teresa McCoy: 172

 

Painttown

Michell Hicks: 227

Patrick Lambert: 213

Juanita Wilson: 34

Gary Ledford: 15

Missy Crowe: 7

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 91

Joey Owle: 23

Larry Blythe: 189

Teresa McCoy: 189

 

Big Y/Wolftown

Michell Hicks: 311

Patrick Lambert: 348

Juanita Wilson: 73

Gary Ledford: 39

Missy Crowe: 12

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 227

Joey Owle: 31

Larry Blythe: 229

Teresa McCoy: 300

 

Big Cove

Michell Hicks: 119

Patrick Lambert: 194

Juanita Wilson: 26

Gary Ledford: 31

Missy Crowe: 4

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 86

Joey Owle: 24

Larry Blythe: 72

Teresa McCoy: 189

 

Snowbird/Cherokee County

Michell Hicks: 227

Patrick Lambert: 248

Juanita Wilson: 10

Gary Ledford: 11

Missy Crowe: 3

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 48

Joey Owle: 38

Larry Blythe: 240

Teresa McCoy: 163

 

Total – Principal Chief

Michell Hicks: 1,378

Patrick Lambert: 1,598

Juanita Wilson: 255

Gary Ledford: 140

Missy Crowe: 51

 

Total – Vice Chief

Carroll “Peanut” Crowe: 683

Joey Owle: 197

Larry Blythe: 1,188

Teresa McCoy: 1,337

The July 7 primary is drawing closer in Cherokee, when the field for principal chief will narrow from five to two.

Current Principal Chief Michell Hicks is making a play for his third four-year term. He’ll again be facing his 2007 rival, Patrick Lambert, whom he defeated by a mere 13 votes to reclaim the seat.

Lambert is an attorney and head of the Tribal Gaming Commission Enterprise, and brought a lawsuit protesting the 2007 election results that was rejected by the tribal Supreme Court.

Also in the race are some newcomers, but they are in no sense novices to the hurly burly politics of the tribe.

Longtime political activist Mary ‘Missy’ Crowe has stepped back into the fray, after protesting the results of the 2003 election, when she failed to win a seat on tribal council.

Juanita Wilson, a former assistant to Chief Hicks, is also coming back to have another try at the top spot. She ran in the last primary, but threw her name in at the last minute and campaigned little in the primary run-up.

Gary Ledford, public safety director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is the only candidate who hasn’t run for office before. That’s because his 20-year military career, which ended in 2006, precluded him from taking office. He’s been in public safety with the tribe since 2007, and he believes his two decades of public service have prepared him for taking the post.

The candidate list isn’t yet official — that won’t come out until absentee ballots are printed in mid-May — but registration for new candidates has already closed.

One of the issues likely to dominate the debate this year is, of course, the economy. Most of the five candidates listed it as one of the major issues facing the tribe in the upcoming four years, and Chief Hicks, the tribe’s former finance officer, is focusing his campaign on the basis of his fiscal leadership.

The Eastern Band, unlike many other local governments, isn’t hemorrhaging funds and doesn’t appear to be facing cuts thanks to its glittering cash cow, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Half of what the casino pulls in is distributed evenly among members, while the other half goes to tribal operations. But not everyone is pleased with how that’s handled.

“There seems to be very little planning in how we’re spending money, even to develop, even to expand the casino,” said Wilson, who also mentioned the Sequoyah National Golf Club (a tribally owned operation in Whittier) as a concerning drain on tribal finances, and she characterized it as an unwise decision by tribal leaders.

Crowe echoed those sentiments of fiscal caution.

“We have seen a lot of things happen because of the economy, and they do have a direct effect to our economy here on the boundary. I feel that we need to start working towards other funding. There’s a lot at stake, so we have to be diligent in protecting our sovereignty and our assets,” said Crowe, suggesting that maybe relying solely on Harrah’s to continue buoying the tribe through tough economic times might not be the best idea.

Ledford’s also pitching diminished dependency on the casino.

“At very great financial risk, we’ve put all of our eggs into one flimsy non-double-weave basket. We have effectively turned our back on the small businessman by focusing all efforts on the casino, in a declining casino market,” said Ledford. “You have to — not should, have to — drive down your debt, build your cash reserves and eliminate or postpone unnecessary expansion projects that increase that debt.”

Meanwhile, incumbent Hicks is seeking to protect his perch by pointing to his accomplishments at the helm as the economic downturn has deepened.

“The biggest concern for this tribe right now is paying the debt off,” said Hicks. And, he said, as a CPA with 23 years of tribal service under his belt, he’s just the guy to keep working on it.

“I’ve helped bring us through the worst economy we’ve ever seen, and the tribe is doing great,” said Hicks.

 

Tribal transparency

Money’s not the only issue on the table in this race, though. Transparency is a buzzword that keeps surfacing when candidates discuss what led them into the fray.

Lambert said the desire for transparency is part of what pulled him back into the political arena.

“One of the things that we’re going to do is make sure that there’s audits and assurance of fairness and that all the tribal audits are made public,” said Lambert. “People are just looking for a change and that’s primarily the reason I got back into it.”

Crowe said that she, too, is lobbying for a more informative government than what she sees now.

“I’ve been the first one to be screaming transparency, all the way back to 1986,” said Crowe. “We have to be vigilant in knowing exactly what the government is doing with our land and our money. Would you not want the CEO of a business to allow the shareholders to know exactly what’s going on with that business?”

Wilson, who has seen the cogs of the tribe’s executive branch turning from the inside, said increased government transparency is one of her top campaign priorities and what pushed her to run in 2007 and now.

“Our government isn’t transparent. We don’t have our own constitution, despite the fact that we are a sovereign nation,” said Wilson. “It amazes me that we’re making the kind of money we are from the casino and we’re cutting programs. I want to get in and figure out exactly where things are going, how things are being spent, because it just doesn’t add up for me.

“I’m not on a witch hunt, I simply want to do this for the people.”

Hicks himself called for openness in campaign-finance disclosure during a debate with Lambert in the last election.

But as the two-term sitting leader, Hicks will be on the defense when it comes to touting the merits of open government. It’s an issue that’s popped up for the chief before, when Joe Martin, former editor of tribal newspaper The One Feather, brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against the tribe, saying Hicks tried to quash unflattering coverage of the tribe in the paper, then pushed Martin out when he didn’t acquiesce. The suit settled out of court late last year.

 

Incumbent’s advantage?

Though the primary is still two months out, Hicks is already mounting a concentrated offensive to win the affections and ear of the voting public.

Though it’s hardly a gauge of public opinion or popularity, if judging by publicity alone, Hicks takes the race by a landslide.

It is difficult to drive a few hundred yards on any major thoroughfare in Cherokee without encountering at least one sign seeking a vote for his re-election. And then there are the two massive tractor-trailers in downtown Cherokee, parked less than a mile from one another, draped with gargantuan banners that bear his stoic image and the phrase ‘Re-Elect Hicks’ in 10-foot-high letters.

At a re-elect-Chief-Hicks cookout this week, he told gathered supporters that he was going back for a third helping because he felt that there was more left to do.

“My work isn’t finished yet, at this point. We’ve accomplished a lot over the last eight years, but I’ve got a lot more that I want to do on behalf of this tribe,” said Hicks.

And he’s got the weight of two campaigns behind him, which offers a high level of brand recognition among voters; a few at the rally were sporting T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Chicks for Hicks,’ and though they planned for 400, stores of burgers and hot dogs were running low only an hour in.

But other candidates think that their freshness is what offers them an advantage. Wilson said she doesn’t see the benefits of keeping a many-term chief in office.

“I’m going in with a mindset of being one term,” said Wilson. “I supported [Hicks] in his first term. I went to work for him. And after the first three-and-a-half years, the policy shifted,” which she said she feels is due in part to the pressure for re-election.

Hicks himself, though, didn’t point to his eight-year incumbency as a challenge in this year’s campaign, but seemed to see it as an asset.

His greatest challenge, he said, will be getting voters out to the polls.

“This can’t be a lazy election,” said Hicks.

Challenger Lambert, though, believes this election will be about changing, not staying, the course.

“This election’s going to be about the tribe and trying to change the direction of the tribe,” said Lambert.

 

Also on the ballot

Elsewhere in primary battles, the field is broad, but not quite as crowded as it has been in previous elections. Vying for vice chief, the only other position elected by the tribe at-large, are former opponents Teresa McCoy, currently a tribal council member for Big Cove, and Larry Blythe, the incumbent. Also running for that seat are Carroll ‘Peanut’ Crowe and Joey Owle.

The six tribal council districts, which operate on two-year terms, have anywhere between four and eight hopefuls, and each group will be whittled to four in the primary, with two winners chosen. All sitting tribal council members are running for re-election.

The general election will be held September 1, but the last chance for voter registration is June 8.

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Supreme Court ruled Saturday that a new election will not be held on the Qualla Boundary, putting to rest a month-long debate filled with accusations of eligible voters being turned away from the polls.

In a tight race for chief — decided by a mere 14-vote margin — 21 protests had been filed with the Election Board.

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