By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Last week, on Monday, Oct. 3, a candidate forum was held at the Chief Joyce Dugan Cultural Arts Center. The first half of the forum included Jackson County Board of Commissioner candidates and the Swain County Board of Commissioner candidates. Candidates who participated included sitting Jackson County Commissioners Vicki Greene and Mark Jones, candidates for Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau and Mickey Luker; and Swain County Commissioner candidates Carolyn Sue Bair and Kenneth Leonard Parton. Swain County Commissioners David Monteith and Steve Moon, whose seats are up for re-election, did not attend the Cherokee forum.
The forum was not heavily attended and few tribal members came to the event. It was a difficult timing to have a political information forum during one of the busiest weeks on the Qualla Boundary. The Cherokee Indian Fair is one the biggest, if not the biggest, local event that the tribal government sponsors and is more than a typical county fair. For many of our people, it is a homecoming. Politics takes a back seat for that week, even postponing Tribal Council sessions, in order to have the family reunions and homecomings that are part and parcel of the Fair. Scheduling a candidate forum during Fair week probably needs to be rethought for future planning.
The questions posed to the candidates were primarily provided by the forum sponsors and dealt with issues such as county spending, steep slope ordinances, senior center spending and the need for animal shelter overhaul. All important issues, but unless you are a tribal member living outside the Boundary, probably not pressing to you. A special allowance was made for Qualla Boundary community members to submit questions to the candidates over other community questions.
During the Jackson County Commissioner forum, I posed the following, “I would like for each candidate to explain their understanding of working relationships between Jackson County and the EBCI. What would your vision, as a county commissioner, be for improving any relationships?”
I asked the same of the Swain County Commissioner candidates.
The sitting commissioners from Jackson County referenced a meeting that happened between the county commissioners and the tribal government approximately five years ago. From that meeting, neither commissioner could point to specific outcomes. They were aware of mutual aid agreements between law enforcement and other emergency services…vaguely, as were the other candidates.
All mentioned that the Tribe shouldn’t be approached as an “open pocket book”. They acknowledged that some leaders in outside governments and organizations looked at the success of the Tribe’s gaming enterprise with jealousy and with a bend toward opportunism. And, one commissioner candidate, who stated that he had meetings and meals with tribal government officials recently, said that this was a great concern and stumbling block to communication and relationship. All candidates said that they would like to facilitate more communication with the Tribe.
During the Swain County Commissioner candidate session, a tribal member asked if the candidates were aware of the Cherokee language initiative in Swain County schools. Neither were aware of anything regarding this program.
Immediately after the session, one of the Swain County Commissioner candidates approached me and asked what I thought could improve intergovernmental relationships. I agreed with each candidate that communication is key. I also told him that there is a lot of ground that must be made up with regard to gaining the trust of the Cherokee people. It is true that we, because of recent history, are leery of those who approach the Tribe for collaboration. There were those we trusted as friends of the Tribe who took the opportunity to get financial gain at our expense.
I also explained that any official that wished to collaborate with Cherokee people, needed to spend time with the people. A few minutes of time on cameras in front of Tribal Council or a private meeting with government leaders will not endear an official with the people of the Tribe.
Officials, especially candidates for office, should know how to run a campaign. In any campaign you will see the candidates at community events. Many will put together special events complete with food and entertainment just so they may gain access to the voter…you. I strongly suggest that those running for public office start early in their campaigns being visible, accessible and actually show genuine caring for the people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Just as voters should educate themselves on what candidates stand for, candidates should get up close and personal with the voters they are vying to represent. Make that effort first, then communications and partnerships will come more easily.
After all, when was the last time you trusted someone that you only saw once every five years?
I would like to thank the OccupyWNC organization and their sponsors for providing the Cherokee people an opportunity to meet and learn about these candidates and how they plan to address issues that impact members of the Tribe.