COMMENTARY: Tribal political endorsements not a good idea

by Nov 2, 2018OPINIONS





In the closing days of October, Tribal Council voted to pass a resolution introduced by Wolfetown Reps. Bo Crowe and Jeremy Wilson to endorse the candidacy of Brad Letts, who’s seeking reelection to the position of Superior Court judge for District 30B. In the same week, the Principal Chief’s office sent an email to tribal employees listing candidates for local, state and federal offices who were supportive of tribal issues.

First, let’s get this out of the way. Letts has been a great judge, and he’s done much to promote the tribe’s sovereignty in both tribal and state courts. Ben Bushyhead, who’s among the candidates the chief has listed, has been great for Swain County, and Rocky Sampson, a tribal descendent with decades of law enforcement experience, is more than capable as a candidate for Swain County Sheriff. These candidates are either tribal members or otherwise connected to the tribe, and it’s understandable that tribal voters would want to support them. That’s not the problem.

With all due respect to the chief’s office and Tribal Council, as they had good intentions, it’s hard not to see the slippery slope where tribal government is treading. There may be no legal restrictions against such endorsements, but from a public perception, tribal officials, in their official capacity, shouldn’t do it.

The tribe is already dabbling in controversy with its constituents over its campaign contributions. These contributions are made with money that essentially belongs to every tribal member, $315,000 of tribal money to be exact from February 2015 – December 2016. For the presidential midterm elections, it’s been a little more than $200,000. While some will argue it’s a necessary evil, it’s still something that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Some of the candidates who got donations from us haven’t really acted in our best interest.

As for the council endorsement of Letts, Letts, in and of himself and his candidacy aren’t the issue. It’s the suggestion that tribal government wants its constituents to vote a certain way. Wilson and Crowe may not have intended to send that message, and there’s no reason to believe that message was intentional, but it certainly could be interpreted that way. It also may have sent the unintentional message that the people the tribe’s elected officials represent are subjects as opposed to constituents.

This is also the problem with the list of tribal friendly candidates. Some candidates, like Republican incumbent Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, who is also a tribal descendent and supportive of the tribe’s sovereignty, weren’t listed. He may be running unopposed since he won his primary, but essentially you can say the same for Bushyhead, whose only opposition is a write-in.

The question is, what criteria are being used to determine who’s a friend and who isn’t? Some would argue that some don’t belong on that list. For example, Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) voted against the Violence Against Women Act, which included provisions that enabled tribes to protect native women from non-native abusers. Meadows’ allegiance to the Trump administration, which is growing increasingly hostile to tribal sovereignty, also brings his support for this tribe into question.

But how can tribal officials show support for tribally supportive candidates? How about talking to candidates, providing candidate forums for them to answer and putting out the results (including those who fail to, or refuse, to respond). Then the voters can decide for themselves. Of course, all voters would do well to research the candidates and inform themselves.

There is nothing wrong with individual elected tribal officials stating their feelings about who’s running. Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke, isn’t shy about stating that she’s a Democrat and often supports other Democrats, but she’s stating such as her opinion. And when a tribal member or someone connected to the tribe runs, as is the case with Letts, Bushyhead, Palmer and Sampson, statements of support are to be expected. Had Wilson and Crowe endorsed Letts’ candidacy as individuals, there wouldn’t be any problem.

As for campaign donations, maybe setting up a tribal PAC would be the way to go.

Tribal members are all individuals, and everyone has an opinion that could be unique. The letters to the editor, or comments on this paper’s Facebook posts confirm that, and the tribe’s elected officials need to respect that. It’s not too much of a stretch that someone would disagree. It doesn’t make them less of a tribal member, nor less of a constituent if they feel that way. Let’s not do endorsements any more. There are better ways to show support for good candidates. Let’s put those better ways to use.