By JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS
TULSA, Okla. - The Cherokee Nation's election commission said Tuesday that a longtime tribal councilman has been elected the Oklahoma-based tribe's new chief, defeating a political rival who held the position for more than a decade after a bitter campaign that included two rounds of voting and several disputed recounts.
Unofficial results of the special election showed Bill John Baker leading Chad Smith by 1,534 votes, with only 150 challenged ballots left to be counted. The results, which had Baker leading 10,633 to 9,099, were expected to be certified by Thursday afternoon, but they would appear to give Baker an unassailable margin of victory.
"The Cherokee people have spoken and I am humbled and honored to be selected to lead our great nation the next four years," Baker said in a statement Tuesday. "This has been a difficult and tough campaign for everyone but the campaign is behind us."
Smith said he was "disappointed" in the election returns, "not just for myself, but also for the people who worked so hard on this campaign, and the thousands upon thousands of Cherokees who supported this campaign and what we stand for." Smith hedged in his statement, saying he would wait word from the election commission on a certified count, but the wide margin of Baker's victory appeared to make it only a formality late Tuesday.
Balloting was conducted initially in June, but the margins of victory in the vote and subsequent recounts were so close that each man was declared the winner twice. After a fifth count, the tribal Supreme Court decided it couldn't say for sure who had won and ordered a new election.
The recent balloting period, which ended Saturday, included an unknown number of votes from the descendants of slaves once owned by members of the Cherokee tribe. The tribe voted in 2007 to kick out the slaves' descendants, who number about 2,800 and who are known as freedmen, but the freedmen have sued to maintain their inclusion in the 300,000-member tribe based at Tahlequah.
The tribal Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that an agreement giving temporary voting rights to some 1,200 freedmen who registered to vote violated the tribe's constitution. But the tribe said it would count the freedmen votes nonetheless and released election results late Tuesday.
The Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court opinion only appeared to address one of two federal lawsuits the freedmen have brought in court, and that lawsuit was recently thrown out of court by a federal judge. A statement by the tribe also noted that the tribe's highest court "cannot set aside a federal court order." About 350 of the registered freedmen requested absentee ballots, and an unknown number of others may have voted at tribal polling stations.
"Hallelujah, victory is ours!" exclaimed Baker supporter Rena Logan, who is a freedmen descendant. "I pray that (Baker) will do right by the freedmen and everybody else."
Freedmen attorney Jon Velie said the results were important because the freedmen "weren't the difference this time."
"Take every freedmen that was able to vote, and there was still more votes that went to Baker than to Smith," Velie said. "I'm glad the Cherokee freedmen got the right to vote and hopeful that going forward, we'll have all the rights of Cherokee citizens and this tribe can go forward in a positive way with all Cherokees being treated equally."
Smith, who was chief until a temporary replacement was named following the June election, had actively campaigned during the last decade to remove freedmen from the tribe's voter rolls. Baker also backed their removal but not as vocally and was believed to have the support of many freedmen who voted.
Baker and Smith dueled for months on the campaign trail, trading barbs over how many jobs the nation was creating for the Cherokee people, spending on health care and even Smith's use of a twin-engine airplane the tribe has owned for years.
The principal chief, similar to a U.S. president, administers a $600 million annual tribal budget, has veto power and sets the tribe's national agenda. The chief also oversees the tribe's casinos, health care facilities and thousands of the nation's employees.