The race for the title of principal chief has tightened in Cherokee, where Chief Michell Hicks found himself in second place in last week’s primary election.
Challenger Patrick Lambert, who fought Hicks for the seat four years ago, won the primary with just over 46 percent of the vote. Hicks trailed with just over 40 percent of ballots on his side.
The incumbent vice chief, Larry Blythe, also lost to his challenger, reflecting possible dissatisfaction with the current administration.
The results were a coup for Lambert. Though he lost the general election by only 13 votes in 2007, he had not fared particularly well in the primary leading up to the final election that year. He garnered only 24 percent of the vote in the 2007 primary compared to 42 percent for Hicks.
“The large vote count was surprising,” said Lambert. “If you look back at where we’ve come from, I’ve increased my overall vote count from the first primary by almost 250 percent.”
Lambert emerged the victor in four of the six voting precincts, trailing Hicks in Yellowhill and Painttown.
For his part, Hicks said the second-place finish isn’t too distressing, especially given the voter turnout of just more than 50 percent.
“It’s a primary, a lot of people don’t concern themselves with the primary,” said Hicks. “I knew it was going to be close coming in. He’s got his base, and I’ve got mine. Now it’s just going to be a matter of who runs the fastest.”
Though turnout was high for a primary — slightly more than half of the tribe’s 6,704 registered voters — it still leaves more than 3,000 voters who could weigh in on either side.
Hicks, who is going for a third run as chief, doesn’t have the statistics of history on his side, however. If he wins in September, he would be only the second third-term chief.
Then there’s the 446 votes that were split among the three other chief candidates, who are now out of the race.
Which candidate will claim those votes come the general election could be anyone’s guess.
“The thing is with Cherokee elections and Cherokee politics, it’s a very personal campaign style that we have here,” said Lambert, pointing out that many vote because of a personal trust in the candidate, not a distrust of the incumbent.
While both candidates are staying tight-lipped about their courtship of the three former challengers, and their voters, it’s clear that they’re seeking to pull in the support.
Juanita Wilson, the next highest vote-getter, in the days after the primary said that she’d been contacted by both camps, but hadn’t yet decided which side to endorse.
“I have a lot of reflection [to do], because if I could’ve supported either, I wouldn’t have gone through the expense and trouble of putting a campaign together,” said Wilson. She said that, although nothing is final, she may choose to avoid endorsements altogether.
Meanwhile, both remaining contenders said their biggest challenge in the general election would be getting voters to hit the polls. Both are confident in their ability to pull off a win, if members will take the time to cast a ballot on Sept. 1.
Vice chief race equally heated
Jumping down a rung to the race for vice chief, the general election is going to be yet another repeat matchup between sitting vice chief Larry Blythe and challenger Teresa McCoy, currently a tribal council member.
McCoy has made it clear from the outset that she was in it to win against Blythe, and she got her chance, taking first place with about 39 percent of the vote. Incumbent Blythe pulled a close second with just under 36 percent.
McCoy won in four out of six communities, tying Blythe in Painttown and trailing in Snowbird.
But her margins weren’t large enough to call it a runaway — McCoy won by a single vote in one district — and the two vice chief challengers now out of the race showed more sizeable totals than those at the bottom of the ballot in the principal chief race. Blythe and McCoy have more at stake in courting those votes.
Looking toward the next two months of heavy campaigning, both remaining candidates for principal chief listed the tribe’s debt as the major issue that will define the general election.
With a new school complex and $683 million expansion at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the tribe’s central revenue source, they were, at one point, on the hook for close to one billion dollars in debt.
While tribal finance officials say they’ve paid down a significant chunk of those notes, they’re still likely paying on tens of millions, if not more.
In the run-up to the primary, eradicating the debt entirely and diversifying the tribe’s income streams were both hot topics. Each candidate proposed a different strategy for a more varied financial model, but all played to the public sentiment of moving away from a casino-centric mentality.
Throughout the pre-primary season, Hicks said he had a plan to eradicate the debt in the next four years. As a certified public accountant and the man at the helm for nearly a decade, Hicks said he’s the only man who can make that happen.
Lambert, though, now says that he’s got a plan for debt reduction, too. And what people want, he maintains, is a departure from the last eight years.
“I think everyone here is hungry for change,” said Lambert. “As I went out and visited homes and Cherokee families, that’s one of the primary messages I kept hearing.”
Hicks, though, is confident in his fiscal strategies and believes he can move past the change mentality his challenger described.
“I feel good and I’m confident,” said Hicks. “I think it’s more of an education of the people. We’ve definitely done our homework as it relates to the debt and how were managing it. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to be determined.”
The general election will be held on Sept. 1. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in a new principal chief and vice chief, as well as a new 12-member tribal council and school board.