By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
With the general election set for Tuesday, Nov. 6, it’s a non-election year for tribal offices. Yet, the impact of these elections is no less important, and four candidates in this year’s elections have tribal connections.
Two are EBCI tribal members: Ben Bushyhead, a democrat who is running for Swain County Commission Chairman; and Brad Letts, who is seeking a second term as Superior Court judge in a non-partisan election.
Two are first-generation EBCI tribal descendants: Rocky Sampson, who is running as the Democratic candidate for sheriff of Swain County; and Derrick Palmer, a Republican who after winning the primary in May, is unopposed in the general election for sheriff of Cherokee County.
All four candidates stress the importance of participation from tribal members in this year’s election. “It is impossible to have one’s needs at the table if one is not at the table,” Bushyhead said.
Ben Bushyhead – Chairman Swain County Board of Commissioners
Bushyhead is the son of the late Robert Bushyhead, whose work on language preservation has become well known. Bushyhead was the first tribal member to be elected to the Swain County Board of Commissioners in 2014 and was the top vote getter in an election where voters pick the top four. In May’s primary, he defeated incumbent Chairman Phillip Carson to become the Democratic nominee. While he has no Republican opposition, there is a write-in challenger Mitchell Jenkins. If he prevails in November, Bushyhead will be the first tribal member to serve as chairman.
This happened with a reservation that straddles a county line between Swain and Jackson Counties. While Bushyhead has had to contend with rumors and stereotypes as to how he would manage the position, he said, “I’m trying to keep it above board and positive, but they make it difficult to do that at times.”
Bushyhead’s first election to the commission came on his second time of running. He also ran in 2008. He decided to run to give tribal members a voice in the county commission, but he also sought to improve relations between the county and tribal governments. “I have done a lot to build those positive relationships.” Of course, some things play into the whole rivalry between Swain County and Cherokee High Schools’ football teams, but Bushyhead said, “On Saturday, put it behind you and get back to business.”
Bushyhead, who lives just outside of Bryson City, off the reservation, didn’t rely solely on the Cherokee vote. He had support from Swain County voters from all walks of life. “Let’s talk about leadership and who brings the better ideas to the table.” However, Bushyhead gives credit to the current administration for its cooperation with the county. “People within the tribe have been quite receptive. They’re very positive about it.”
Brad Letts – Superior Court Judge
Brad Letts, son of Mary Jane and Ray Don Letts, is seeking a second term as superior court judge. After graduating from the University of Mississippi School of Law, Letts began his work with the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise as a board member appointed by Principal Chief Joyce Dugan in 1995. He also worked as an assistant district attorney with the district attorney’s office from 1995-1997. In 1997 he was hired by Dugan to serve as the tribe’s attorney general.
In 2000, he was appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt to serve as a district court judge. After getting reelected twice, he was appointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue as superior court judge in 2009. In 2010 he was a elected to continue that position, and now he seeks election to another eight-year term.
Letts is being challenged by Waynesville Attorney Mark Melrose. Both Letts and Melrose are Democrats, but the race for superior court judge is non-partisan.
Mary Jane Letts said, “We are very proud of Brad. He is a very hard worker, and he tries to be fair.”
Letts, who worked to get the tribe’s court system used today established, currently sits as a temporary judge in the tribal court as well. He has worked to educate and get respect from the state courts for tribal sovereignty. “We are fortunate in Cherokee in that we probably have the best relationship between state and tribal courts in the entire United States. (North Carolina) courts understand and respect tribal sovereignty. As an enrolled member of the Tribe, I have used my position to make sure the tribe’s sovereignty is respected.”
Rocky Sampson – Sheriff, Swain County
Rocky Sampson, son of Duffy Sampson, is a tribal descendent seeking to be the next sheriff of Swain County. Sampson, a Democrat, is challenging Republican incumbent Curtis Cochran.
Sampson got his start as a dispatcher with the Cherokee Indian Police Department. “I’ve been in law enforcement ever since I graduated from high school.” Like Bushyhead, Sampson wants cooperation between the two governments. “I’d like to improve the working relationship between the tribe and the county. The schools may have always been a rivalry, but the people don’t have to be.”
He said the people need better services and fairer treatment. “They need someone they can trust, that they can talk to.”
Having spent his time in Cherokee, he’s seen training and examples of safety used by the tribe that can benefit Swain County, and that’s where a good working relationship can help. “There are a lot of resources that we can work together with.”
He also sees an office that not only can issue punishments to criminal offenders, it can help offenders stay out of trouble when they’re released, such as exploring training programs where they can learn skills.
Derrick Palmer – Sheriff, Cherokee County
Derrick Palmer, son of Ronnie Palmer, is a tribal descendent who was elected as the county’s sheriff in 2014. After defeating Republican Dan Sherill in the May primary, Palmer is set to serve a second term as sheriff. He has no Democratic challenger. Prior to being elected, Palmer had worked with the Cherokee County Schools Resource Officer department and as a deputy in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.
With the scattering of tribal trust land in the county, the tribe occasionally will call upon the sheriff’s office for assistance. “It has been a great working relationship working with the tribe,” Palmer said. He said his department also has worked well with the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino, just outside of Murphy. “I’m more than happy to help any way that we can.”
Get out and vote
One common thread among these four candidates is stressing the need for tribal members to get out and vote. What happens with local, state and national offices impacts tribal members locally.
“Even if you live on trust lands, what the county is doing affects you,” said Bushyhead. When tribal members leave trust lands, they fall under the authority of the sheriff. If their children attend Swain County Schools, their policy and budgets are decided by a school board. Tax rates on groceries or property if a tribal member owns land outside of the trust land boundaries are decided by a county commission. All of these are elected positions.
“The power of their vote is what people don’t seem to comprehend,” said Bushyhead. “Politicians pay attention if you have a large number of voters.”
Letts can attest to that. “In the 240-year history of North Carolina, I’m the only tribal member to ever be a state judge. It’s important for enrolled members to be involved and engaged, because they impact their lives on a daily basis.”
Sampson said, “You step off this rez, it affects you. They affect people on the rez just as much as they do people off the rez. Everyone’s vote counts. If you don’t vote, you can’t be heard.”
While stating that both Sampson and Cochran are good candidates, Palmer urged tribal members to cast their ballots. “It’s important that you get people that are of good character that you can trust.”