After a bitter campaign in which the candidates attacked each other on everything from job creation to use of a private plane, one of the nation's largest American Indian tribes chose a new leader in an election decided by 11 votes.
Longtime councilman Bill John Baker unseated three-term incumbent Chad Smith and will be sworn in as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation on Aug. 14.
The tribe has nearly 300,000 members, making it one of the biggest in the nation and the largest in Oklahoma, where it has a 14-county jurisdiction. Many of its members live elsewhere, and the biggest different between the tribal election and a typical U.S. congressional campaign is the percentage of people who vote by absentee ballot. In 2007, it was nearly 20 percent.
More than 15,000 votes were cast this year, and the margin between Baker and Smith had been fewer than 30 since late Saturday. Tribal election officials spent the night behind closed doors, scrutinizing so-called “challenge” ballots, which are similar to provisional ballots, before determining the winner early Sunday.
Baker, who has served 12 years as a tribal councilman, will take the oath of office on Aug. 14.
“I'm humbled and honored to be the new Chief of the Cherokee Nation,” he said in a statement. “I want to thank everyone who supported me. … I think it's fair to say that every vote counted. We've come far, but we have far to go.
“Every day on the campaign trail I have said `we all come from one fire.' Now that the election is over, I hope we can all join together to keep our fire burning brighter than ever before. “
A noticeably fatigued Smith expressed appreciation to his supporters and staff “who accomplished great things in the last decade. We'll take action to review and affirm the ballot and the election.
“When you have 11 votes out of 15,000, you want to ensure that the count is affirmed,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Smith rose to power in 1999 after another tough campaign that ended with him unseating Joe Byrd, who replaced legendary tribal chief Wilma Mankiller when she retired. He campaigned largely on the tribe's business success, touting the creation of more than 5,000 “stable jobs” during the past decade, in fields as varied as hospitality, gaming, health services, education, security, information technology and tourism.