Friday, October 30, 2009

Mashantucket Pequot Election On Sunday

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is an article from The Day newspaper on Sunday's tribal council election on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation. On a trip to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum for an archeaology conference last week I saw about a dozen campaign signs on the edges of the short span of Tribal roadway that leads to the museum.

Sunday's tribal council vote a turning point for Mashantuckets
By Brian Hallenbeck
The Day
October 30, 2009

Mashantucket - Serene despite the talk of financial upheaval that has buffeted it lately, the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation bore a striking resemblance Thursday to other places where democracy is scheduled to play out next week.

Fallen leaves colored the ground and stuck to less-traveled roadways. Campaign placards sprouted near parking lots and intersections. Tidy and well-manicured, it could have passed for an upscale subdivision anywhere in Connecticut.

The quiet belied the stakes at hand though.

In just three days, the tribe would hold an election that would yield at least one and as many as three new tribal councilors as well as a new council chairman. Nothing less than the fate of the tribe and its world-class gaming enterprise - Foxwoods Resort Casino and MGM Grand at Foxwoods - would await the seven-member council that takes office Jan. 1.

What qualities should the electorate - about 450 tribal adults 18 and older - be looking for in the candidates? Aside from the obvious one, the effect of the casinos' declining revenues on the tribe's finances, what are the issues?

The slogans on the campaign signs only hinted at answers. For outsiders, they would have to do.

"Bring honor, respect and honesty back to Tribal Council," read one candidate's signs, evoking a common theme. "Vote for Jim Walker."

Theresa Hayward Bell, whose brother, Richard "Skip" Hayward, has been credited with almost single-handedly resurrecting the tribe in the 1970s, listed her qualifications on her signs: "Experienced. Dedicated. Openness. Honest. Fair."

Bell worked in tribal government in the 1970s and '80s and was named executive director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center years before it opened in 1998. When she stepped down in 2006, she told a reporter she'd grown tired of working for people who failed to grasp the significance of their heritage.

She said then that the casino-borne cash had been a curse as well as a boon and wondered aloud whether it could last forever. She doubted it.

Reached by phone this week, she declined to discuss her candidacy. The tribe's business is private, she said.

Anthony M. "Tony" Beltran, who served a term on the council from 1998 to 2000, might have spoken about his bid to return to the council if he hadn't been dealing with a bad back when a reporter called. His campaign signs had begun to appear in late summer, dominating the reservation's landscape for weeks.

"Haven't we had enough yet?" his signs asked, even before word of the tribe's financial woes surfaced.

Like the signs of several of the 18 candidates - one has dropped out of the record field of 19 that declared themselves Oct. 1 - Beltran's suggest the tribal council is a ship that's badly off course and in need of righting.

"Equal Voices & Equal Opportunities," Michael Sebastian's signs promise.

Those of L. Brian Sebastian claim he offers "Unrivaled experience, unmatched dedication."

Both Karen Hatcher, former head of the tribe's Pequot Health Care, and Clifford Sebastian III, at one time the tribal police chief, would put tribal members "first," their signs say.

The two councilors seeking re-election state their cases, too.

"Re-elect Charlene Jones," the council secretary urges. "Dedicated to Community, Culture, Health & Education."

Rodney Butler, the council treasurer, keeps it simple. "Vote for Rodney," his signs advise.

Up until September, the ballot figured to list a third incumbent, Michael Thomas, whose seven-year reign as council chairman ended amid controversy over his response to the financial crisis. His pledge to put tribal government and "incentive" payments to tribal members ahead of payments to creditors soared like a cement glider in the financial world and, for that matter, Indian Country.

His fellow councilors wasted no time distancing themselves from such a notion, first placing Thomas on administrative leave and eventually voting to expel him.

No one with the tribe would say Thursday what's to become of Thomas' seat between now and the end of his term Dec. 31. Presumably, it will simply remain vacant until the new council takes over.

Sunday's first round of voting at the tribe's community center will conclude at noon. Then, once the three top vote-getters are identified, the membership will elect a chairman from among those three and the four councilors not up for election - Vice Chairman Richard E. Sebastian, Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, Maureen Sebastian and James Jackson.

There were no signs Thursday to suggest who the new chairman might be.