Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
If Principal Chief Richard Sneed was physically tired from campaigning for re-election, it was hard to tell Saturday as he smiled for pictures, greeted supporters or read on an iPad in between speeches at an event in Franklin Saturday.
“So wonderful to see you. This is such a good day,” a supporter told him after a children’s group performed a Cherokee dance.
“Yes, ma’am,” he politely replied.
When asked about the election that will determine if he remains in the Tribal Council House as leader of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI), the youthful 51-year-old summed up the last several months in two words: “Twelve days.”
That’s 12 days until the Sept. 5 election in Cherokee, where the current Principal Chief faces a formidable opponent in former counsel representative Teresa McCoy, who edged him out by 15 votes in a June primary.
McCoy won the race to decide the top two candidates by a count of 1,132 votes to 1,117. About 4,200 of the tribe’s 5,500 registered voters participated in the primary among a tribal population of approximately 15,000.
“Our tribe has been starving for mature leadership,” McCoy said in a phone interview Wednesday, saying she will unfreeze hiring for some 600 tribal positions, build more affordable housing and reestablish positive relationships with North Carolina congressmen and senators, which she believes have been tarnished.
“Talking about money is what makes our people pay attention and actually be interested in anything he has to say,” McCoy said in characterizing Principal Chief Sneed’s public addresses. “My platform is a healthy nation begins in our homes.”
McCoy stressed the matriarchal nature of the tribe and the maturity that she says comes from her domestic experience as a grandmother, mother, wife and sister.
“I am a woman. I understand the needs of the home. I am domestic and the current chief is more concerned about money,” she said. At nearly 59 ½ years old, McCoy also rests on her laurels as she nears the age when she can officially call herself a tribal elder. “I am now an elder whereas the current chief is not.”
Principal Chief Sneed took over two years ago for Patrick Lambert, who was impeached in 2017 on a host of tribal law violations. With just two years under his belt as vice chief at the time, Principal Chief Sneed believes he provided steady leadership and accomplished in just two years what many administrations would hope to accomplish in a full four-year term.
“We came in under some very difficult circumstances, but we’ve got a very tremendous team,” he said Saturday. Principal Chief Sneed has highlighted saving the tribe $85 million over two years without cutting a single job. “The things we’ve accomplished will impact the tribe in a positive way for generations to come.”
The former Marine and nationally recognized schoolteacher wants to turn his attention now to reinvigorating Cherokee culture and language with a new tribal government division.
“It’s time for us to move to the next level in that and make it the forefront of everything we do so that we begin to live as Cherokees again, because we’ve been westernized and colonized for sure,” he said.
Differing views on economic development
McCoy said she spent more than $20,000 of her own money to defend herself in the Cherokee Supreme Court in April and overturn a prior disqualification from running for tribal principal chief for allegedly defrauding the tribe in 1996.
She believes powerful political forces and a “shyster” lawyer were at work to prevent her and other women from ascending to the rank.
“The current administration I believe wholeheartedly tried to methodically eradicate any opposition,” she said. “We realize that the election board and a shyster attorney became involved in a civil conspiracy not to allow me to run.”
While McCoy touts her 20 years of counsel experience and strong relationships with elders, Principal Chief Sneed claims that his own research found that McCoy was often absent for important votes concerning gaming and the tribal budget.
McCoy denied such absenteeism and said her prior votes against gaming were based on the belief that it should be decided by referendum. Ultimately, the gaming decision was made by the Tribal Council and the first casino opened in 1997.
During his two years in office, Principal Chief Sneed succeeded in getting a sports betting bill passed by the North Carolina legislature, a trespassing law on the state statute, tribal license plates and Cherokee language teacher certification.
“That requires diplomacy and respect in working with other elected officials. Historically, she hasn’t had that, that’s not part of her skill set,” he said. “Probably the biggest thing that sets us apart is I’ve been a huge advocate for economic development and economic diversification.”
McCoy claims that Principal Chief Sneed relies too heavily on gaming, and she wants to move the tribe in the direction of seeking federal government contracts, like the one she saw in Oklahoma that employed 21 different tribes assembling high-tech wire harnesses for Blackhawk helicopters.
“I’m thinking way outside of the gaming box,” she said, calling the Eastern Band the largest employer west of Charlotte with 6,300 employees. “More revenue can be generated by searching out contracts such as 8 (a) [for small disadvantaged businesses] with the Department of Defense – that’s the goal I’m headed to.”
Going into the home stretch ahead of next Thursday’s election, both candidates expressed high confidence.
“I feel very positive about it,” said principal Chief Sneed. “There seems to be a momentum shift where people are realizing a lot of good that we’ve done over the last two years.”
Said McCoy, “The members of my tribe have stepped up and participated in one of the finest grassroots, underdog campaigns that Western North Carolina has probably seen in years.”
Following election results, a new principal chief and vice chief will be seated the first week of October.