Races for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation are no strangers to volatile controversy or outright conflict.
The campaigns and their supporters have hurled accusations or suggestions of improper, unethical or criminal behavior involving David Walkingstick and Chuck Hoskin Jr. prior to the June 1 election. Meanwhile, a third principal chief candidate, Dick Lay, has avoided having any complaints filed against his campaign.
Attorney General Todd Hembree has found no violation of election laws by Hoskin Jr. after multiple complaints were lodged that accused him and his father’s company, Cherokee Future, of improperly hiding campaign expenses or illegally accepting in-kind contributions. Amended financial reports show that what originally were labeled as nearly $600,000 in miscellaneous consulting fees actually were payments for advertising, printing, office, travel, food and other campaign-related expenses, not just consultation.
Walkingstick was disqualified Friday after an all-day Election Commission hearing found he illegally coordinated with a corporation — started by his former campaign financial consultant — that accepted donations and stumped in favor of Walkingstick.
Hembree alleged that Cherokees for Change illegally converted monetary donations into in-kind contributions of digital and direct mail advertisements for the Walkingstick campaign. Cherokees for Change argued its efforts were independent of the campaign and adhered to federal laws that are stricter than tribal ones that don’t address the matter of political action committees.
On Saturday morning, Walkingstick on Facebook announced, “The fight isn’t over!” in a post asking for donations to “help us bring a top-notch legal team to the (Cherokee) Supreme Court.” An appeal must be filed within five business days.
His disqualification opened the door to questions about how the fallout will be handled if he is unable to obtain reinstatement, given his name was on absentee ballots mailed nearly three weeks ago.
There is legal precedent established in the 1990s within the Cherokee Nation for disregarding a disqualified candidate’s votes rather than rescheduling an election.
And a potential — if not unlikely — wildcard may have been introduced Tuesday. Rhonda Brown Fleming, a Cherokee freedman descendant, is suing federal and tribal entities to get her name on the ballot or postpone the election.
Brown Fleming was disqualified from the race in February by the Election Commission for failing to meet the residency requirements in the Cherokee Constitution. She has argued she didn’t want to relocate only to be disqualified because she isn’t a blood Cherokee, which remains a requirement in the Constitution even though a federal judge ruled that Cherokee Freedmen have the same rights as blood Cherokees.
Even with the aforementioned turmoil, the 2019 race for principal chief — so far — can still be considered relatively calm by historical high-water marks.
That wasn’t the case as recently as 2011.
Multiple vote recounts that year yielded different results in a narrow race that prompted the election’s dismissal and launched a redo vote that ultimately lifted Bill John Baker over a former principal chief, Chad Smith.
In 1995, a tribal court disqualified the primary’s lead vote-getter for violating Cherokee law on public office requirements. The candidate previously pleaded guilty to a felony in state court — which was expunged from his record — and failed to disclose so on his application.
George Bearpaw, the disqualified candidate, was a protegee of Wilma Mankiller’s administration. Mankiller gave Bearpaw a tribal pardon to try to save his candidacy, but the move didn’t persuade the high court.
The candidate with the second most votes, Joe Byrd, went on to win the run-off, with ballots cast in favor of Bearpaw counted as null.
A tribal constitutional crisis ensued during a struggle over the separation of powers, notably including an armed takeover — with no shots fired — of the historic Cherokee Courthouse in 1997.
A predawn raid by Byrd’s handpicked security force overtook a contingent of former marshals guarding the courthouse after he had terminated them for carrying out a court-approved search warrant to look for evidence of suspected misuse of funds at his offices.
Given Walkingstick’s disqualification, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal decision in 1995 that nullified Bearpaw votes may be revisited.
In its 2-1 decision, the court held that postponing the run-off election or orchestrating a new primary election without Bearpaw on ballots “would do irreparable harm to the Tribe.” So the court ordered the run-off to continue as scheduled, with any votes cast for Bearpaw to be tossed out.
“This Court has considered other remedies but has rejected them as being not in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation,” according to the court’s opinion. “It is of critical important (sic) that the tribe continue without interruption following the expiration of the terms of the current Principal Chief and Deputy Principal Chief.”
An illustration of the contentious tenor permeating the June 1 elections popped up before an executive session May 10 to discuss Hembree’s allegations against Walkingstick’s campaign.
Election Commissioner Carolyn Allen called for staff to come into the meeting room.
Allen then thanked staff members for putting up with complaints, demands or general displeasure from people phoning or visiting the Commission’s location. She said she, personally, won’t put up with any more cursing and won’t ask staff to either.
Allen threatened potential legal action against citizens or candidates who continue to act out against commissioners or staff.
“I know that some of those things have even been harassment,” she said.
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