Cherokee Nation elects new leader in close race

AP News
Posted: Jun 26, 2011 11:19 AM
Cherokee Nation elects new leader in close race

After a bitter campaign in which the candidates attacked each other on everything from job creation to use of a private plane, one of the nation's largest American Indian tribes chose a new leader in an election decided by 11 votes.

Longtime councilman Bill John Baker unseated three-term incumbent Chad Smith and will be sworn in as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation on Aug. 14.

The tribe has nearly 300,000 members, making it one of the biggest in the nation and the largest in Oklahoma, where it has a 14-county jurisdiction. Many of its members live elsewhere, and the biggest different between the tribal election and a typical U.S. congressional campaign is the percentage of people who vote by absentee ballot. In 2007, it was nearly 20 percent.

More than 15,000 votes were cast this year, and the margin between Baker and Smith had been fewer than 30 since late Saturday. Tribal election officials spent the night behind closed doors, scrutinizing so-called "challenge" ballots, which are similar to provisional ballots, before determining the winner early Sunday.

Baker, who has served 12 years as a tribal councilman, will take the oath of office on Aug. 14.

"I'm humbled and honored to be the new Chief of the Cherokee Nation," he said in a statement. "I want to thank everyone who supported me. ... I think it's fair to say that every vote counted. We've come far, but we have far to go.

"Every day on the campaign trail I have said `we all come from one fire.' Now that the election is over, I hope we can all join together to keep our fire burning brighter than ever before. "

A noticeably fatigued Smith expressed appreciation to his supporters and staff "who accomplished great things in the last decade. We'll take action to review and affirm the ballot and the election.

"When you have 11 votes out of 15,000, you want to ensure that the count is affirmed," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Smith rose to power in 1999 after another tough campaign that ended with him unseating Joe Byrd, who replaced legendary tribal chief Wilma Mankiller when she retired. He campaigned largely on the tribe's business success, touting the creation of more than 5,000 "stable jobs" during the past decade, in fields as varied as hospitality, gaming, health services, education, security, information technology and tourism.

Smith claimed most of those jobs went to American Indians, largely Cherokees but some members of other tribes.

Baker disputed Smith's figures, claiming 1,000 Cherokee jobs were lost during his time in office and more needed to be done to employ the tribe's members. He accused the tribe of announcing a jobs initiative only in response to his stump speeches _ a charge Smith denied, saying it had long been in the works.

Baker also criticized Smith for using a tribal airplane for travel and called for the tribe to spend more of its gaming revenues on health care. Smith said he followed a budget approved by the tribal council in using the tribe's twin-engine airplane. He also noted tribe went from spending $18 million per year health care in 1999 to more than $300 million a year now.

The campaign was as expensive as it was contentious, with the men combining to spend nearly a half-million dollars. Smith outdid Baker in fundraising and donations, but Baker, a Tahlequah businessman, loaned his campaign more than $115,000.

The turnout for this year's election was considerably higher than in 2007, when Smith won a third term as 13,903 voters cast ballots.

Tribal voters rejected measures that would have eliminated term limits for the principal and deputy chiefs and for seats on the tribal council. The term limits were put in place eight years ago. Smith had supported repealing them, even though he said during the campaign he didn't intend to run again. Baker supported keeping them.

Mankiller's stepson Chris Soap will face a runoff election next month in the race for deputy chief. He received almost 47 percent of the vote in a four-way race. His opponent will be Joe Crittenden, who finished second with a little more than 36 percent.

Soap was Smith's running mate, while Baker opted not to ally himself with any of the four deputy chief candidates, saying he would try to work with whoever won the election.