Eastern Band of Cherokee held its general election on September 2nd. The unofficial results for the new tribal council and the three referendum questions on the ballot. BPR’s Lilly Knoepp spoke with Holly Kays, outdoor editor and staff writer at the Smoky Mountain News about the election results.
Lilly Knoepp: So Holly and I just spent the day together at Tribal Council meeting. This was recorded September 9th. She is much more experienced with Tribal Council than I am. She's been covering it for seven years now, can you kind of explain the breakdown of Tribal Council to folks?
Holly Kays: So there are 12 members of Tribal Council, two from each of six communities. Interestingly, all 12 members come up for election every two-year cycle. Those cycles happen on odd number years, Principal Chief, and Vice Chief. They're actually on odd numbered years too, but just they have four-year terms.
Lilly Knoepp: So what happened in this year's election? Where do we stand right now with the final results?
Holly Kays: Well, after the new members are sworn in October, the body is going to look very similar actually to how it looked before. So there will be three new faces on Tribal Council, but that's new with asterisks because two of those people are very familiar faces to Tribal Council having served many, many terms before. Bill Taylor will be replacing Chelsea Taylor Saunooke representing Wolfetown. Taylor previously served as Chairman of the Tribal Council during the 2015 to 2017 term which included, notably the impeachment of Patrick Lambert, the former Principal Chief. Then Theresa McCoy will also be returning as a Big Cove representative replacing Perry Shell. She is a longtime member of Tribal Council. She decided not to run again in 2017, but she did run in 2019 against Principal Chief Richard Sneed, trying to win that seat and was unsuccessful, but will be coming back on the Tribal Council.
Only one member of the 2021 to 23 council will be new to the body. The third new member of council will be T.W. Price Saunooke, and he'll be replacing Tom Wahnetah on the Yellowhill Tribal Council. In the Painttown race, according to the initial unofficial results Dyke Sneed, he was far and away the highest vote getter, but then the other incumbent Tommy Saunooke came in just six votes ahead of the challenger Bentley Tauquette. Vote totals did change slightly in the recount, but the basic order of the candidates remained the same.
Lilly Knoepp: So beyond the Tribal Council members - and there were also some school board elections - there were three questions pertaining to alcohol that were on the ballot for referendum, and those needed a certain percentage of turnout to move forward. And in previous years they really hadn't ever reached that level. So what happened this year?
Holly Kays: Well, this year 42.9% of registered voters voted on the referendum questions, which is well above the 30% threshold that's needed.
Lilly Knoepp: Harrah’s Cherokee Casino does allow alcohol sales. So the laws are really kind of complicated about where you can sell alcohol on the Qualla Boundary. What's the conversation that people are having about alcohol in tribal council?
Holly Kays: Well, traditionally there's been some pretty strong opposition to expanded alcohol availability in Cherokee. Some of that's religiously based. A lot of it is culturally-based and history-based Those supporting alcohol expansion. They really see it as an economic development tool.
Lilly Knoepp: And so that leads us to the three questions were for expanding beer sales at retail establishment, expanding the tribal ABC commission in order to be able to operate an ABC store and expanding availability, um, for malt beverages and wines at restaurants, hotels, and other qualified establishment.
Holly Kays: Well voters approved all three measures. They all had slightly different margins. By far the most popular of the three was the referendum questions, supporting the expansion of alcohol sales to restaurants and hotels.
Lilly Knoepp: Now all this might be a little bit surprising to some people, if they've ever been to the Qualla Boundary. And, you know, they've probably had a beer at a few different establishments and that's because there are some loopholes to these sort of dry laws. Can you explain the more recent laws that have expanded alcohol sales?
Holly Kays: The first was in 2009, there was a referendum in which voters allowed alcohol sales on casino, property and casino property only. So the [Harrah's Cherokee] casino was dry for its first 12 years of existence, but ever since 2009 alcohol has been available there. There's also something known as the Blue Ridge Law, which has some exemptions it's been observed and put into effect on the Qualla Boundary for about four years now. And it has some exemptions to allow alcohol sales and availability off of casino property. It's called the Blue Ridge Law because it allows alcohol sales for establishments, like restaurants, that kind of thing within one and a half miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp. There's also potential in that law for some one-time permits for special events and things like that.
Lilly Knoepp: So the election, the new tribal council members will be sworn in, in October. When are these new alcohol referendums going to be acted upon?
Holly Kays: Well, the Board of Elections has to certify all the vote totals. So that includes the referendums as well as, all of the tribal council elections, the school board elections. Once certification happens, for the referendum in particular, they'll be considered a binding law just like any other pass by tribal council. And that'll happen prior to the swearing in of new council members, which takes place on the first Monday of October.