Chief’s race pits incumbent against gaming official

A tight race could be in store for the two candidates vying for principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians between now and the final election in September.

A primary election held two weeks ago whittled down the field from seven to two. The current chief, Michell Hicks, garnered 42 percent of the vote, while the next runner-up, Patrick Lambert, got only 24 percent.

Lambert is the executive director of the Gaming Commission, a regulatory body that watches the casino.

While it seems like a big lead for the incumbent, Hicks got less than 50 percent of the vote — meaning the majority of primary voters preferred someone else over Hicks as chief. The question now is whether those voters will throw their support behind Lambert or whether some will recant and vote for Hicks in the final contest.

Rob Saunooke, a candidate for chief who did not make it past the primary, said Hicks didn’t garner enough of the vote to be comfortable going into the final election.

“It is clear the majority of the Reservation is not pleased with the way things are right now,” Saunooke said.

The primary for vice chief nearly mirrored that of chief. The sitting vice chief, Larry Blythe, got 41 percent of the vote. The same voters that supported Hicks likely voted for Blythe as well — re-affirming the idea of an anti-administration sentiment among the majority of voters, Saunooke said. Blythe’s competition in the final election will be Teresa McCoy, a former tribal council member.

Hicks’ main platform is to tout his accomplishments over the past four years as chief.

“I think people have seen we have really put forth an effort. We didn’t come in and say we are going to do things, but really put the rubber to the pavement,” Hicks said.

Hicks said the tribe has made great progress over the past four years. He cited a new school campus for elementary through high school students, a planned $650 million casino expansion, a movie theater under way and a facelift of the main commercial corridor in Cherokee as part of a downtown revitalization.

“We have a plan in place that moves the tribe forward,” Hicks said.

But Lambert questioned the tribe’s ability to pay for all this.

“We have stretched ourselves out here with several projects. I think a lot of it is for show,” Lambert said.

Lambert supports the casino expansion, but said he would have advocated a phased approach.

“To come out of the gate with a $650 million expansion is a little bit bold,” Lambert said.

Lambert said the tribe’s budget has grown from $125 million to $350 million during Hicks’ term. Casino revenues have not grown accordingly to pay for it, however.

“Not only have we reached a limit on our spending, but we have a mountain of debt,” Lambert said. “That is really concerning to me.”

Hicks disagreed.

“I think the tribe has done a fabulous job with managing debt. Obviously anybody can be a critic, but the brass tacks are the brass tacks,” Hicks said. Before becoming chief, Hicks was the finance officer for the tribe for seven years. That’s nearly 10 years of watching the tribe’s money and it hasn’t gone bad yet.

“We are in a better financial position than we have ever been in,” Hicks said. “We have done a knock-down job.”

Hicks said all the projects undertaken are important to the tribe

“We are a solvent nation. Who else is going to do them for us?” Hicks asked. “I don’t see capital projects as an expense. We are investing in our people. We are investing in ourselves.”

The movie theater, for instance, means tribal members won’t have to drive to Sylva or Waynesville to see a movie, Hicks said.

Lambert said the obsession with capital projects comes at the expense of tribal services, such as health care or programs for tribal elders.

“We have been so focused on business development we have lost sight of what some of our local tribal members need,” Lambert said.


Casino’s future

Lambert has criticized Hicks for his handling of crucial negotiations with the state over the tribe’s gaming operations. Namely, the tribe has been lobbying the state for years for permission to have live dealers, which would make the casino more attractive and be a boon for tribal revenue. Lambert said Hicks’ tactics were not politically savvy, however, and have left the tribe against a brick wall with the state.

“I’ve been really disappointed with the current administration’s relationship with Raleigh,” Lambert said. “We have got to rebuild those relationships.”

Lambert has been a player in every gaming pact the tribe has secured with the state. Lambert said he has the background and relationships to get negotiations back on track.

“Right now we are at a standstill with gaming,” Lambert said.

Hicks said that the failed negotiations were not his fault. The tribe has been trying to get live dealers for years.

“There have been four administrations that have attempted that,” Hicks said.

The decision rests with the Governor, and Gov. Mike Easley simply wasn’t interested, Hicks said.

“If this governor’s not wiling to work with us, we simply wait on the next governor,” Hicks said.

Hicks said that Lambert was part of a negotiation committee that tried to work with Easley.

“It’s not like he was standing outside looking in saying ‘You didn’t do this right.’ He was part of the committee. So if one goes down we all go down,” Hicks said.

But Lambert said the negotiation team wasn’t made a full partner, rather Hicks wanted to do things his own way without them.

“The current administration decided ‘We know better. We don’t need the ones involved in the past. We can do this on our own,’” Lambert said.

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