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Catawba Indian chief opts not to seek re-election

In a stunning political development for the York County-based Indian tribe that has weathered political turmoil for years, Catawba Chief Donald Rodgers has abruptly decided not to seek another term in tribal elections this month.

The announcement means a new leader will take over after the July 23 vote.

Under Rodgers' leadership - a sometimes rocky four-year tenure that featured an attempted ouster by tribal members in September - the tribe has started a Pow-wow that has gained national recognition and has righted some financial problems.

An employment opportunity serving the American Indian community across the country has come up for Rodgers, but he declined to give specifics Thursday in an interview at the tribal Longhouse on the Catawba Indian Reservation.

The tribe posted a letter from Rodgers about removing himself from the election on its Web site after Rodgers informed tribal staff late Wednesday.

"I love what I do and what I have been able to do for the Catawba people," Rodgers said, "but this is an opportunity that I have to take for my family."

Rodgers, 41, is married with three teenage children, the oldest of whom is set to leave soon on a Mormon missionary trip.

A former credit counselor, Rodgers was elected in 2007 and took an out-front public image as chief while dealing with tribal members and in-fighting for Catawbas rights in education, housing and other programs.

Under his leadership, Rodgers said, the tribe has "come a long way."

Rodgers' withdrawal leaves leadership open for the 2,000-member tribe.

Chief of the tribe is a paid, full-time position. The chief leads a five-member executive committee that makes most day-to-day decisions affecting the Catawba people and administration of the tribal reservation in eastern York County along the Catawba River.

The chief also is the social and political head of the tribe. Rodgers has met with President Barack Obama and testified before Congress, and Catawba chiefs regularly meet with national, state and local leaders.

Rodgers, who once worked for the tribe's cultural center for 10 years, often dressed in traditional tribal clothes at public events where he championed the Catawba culture and history.

Both Jason Harris, current secretary/treasurer of the tribe, and tribe member Bill Harris remain candidates for chief, said Amy Canty, co-chairwoman of the tribe's election committee. Bill Harris confirmed Thursday he remains a candidate. Jason Harris could not be reached.

All five executive committee positions, plus a vote on a proposed tribal constitution and a land-use issue, are on the July 23 ballot.

Former Chief Gilbert Blue, who led the tribe for 34 years until he retired in 2007, thanked Rodgers for his service. Some Catawbas have asked Blue to run as a write-in candidate, but Blue, 77, said he is not interested.

Blue said he will continue to offer any advice to whomever is elected chief, as well as serve in any "ambassador" type leadership roles.

"I will help whomever the Catawba people choose," Blue said. "My days as chief have about run their course."

Ballots for the July 23 election are already printed, Canty said, but tribal members will be told beforehand that Rodgers is no longer a candidate.

Monty Branham, the other co-chairman of the tribe's election committee, said tribal members should understand that Rodgers' leaving the race does not change the July election date.

"The election will go on," Branham said.

Rodgers will remain chief until the election, Canty said. The next General Council meeting - a gathering of tribal members - is scheduled for July 9.

The Catawbas are the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina. In 1993, the tribe settled a historic land-claim lawsuit with the federal and state governments over property mostly in York County that had held up regional land sales. The Catawbas received $50 million.

The tribe offers cultural, educational, medical and social programs on the reservation. It has seen several legal and political conflicts in the past 15 years over the direction of the tribe and leadership.

In his letter, Rodgers thanked tribal members for allowing him to serve and offered his continued support of the tribe. He asked tribal members to vote for Bill Harris.

Some tribal members signed a petition last year claiming Rodgers abused his authority as chief, and a few dozen voted him out. However, the executive committee of the tribe did not recognize the vote and Rodgers remained chief.

Rodgers denied the abuse of power allegations last year, calling it a personal vendetta as he tried to lead the tribe into new directions in housing, education and image.

Before Rodgers was elected, the tribe had been under some restrictions from the government concerning federal grants, but the tribe was hurt more by the loss of bingo hall receipts.

The tribe is guaranteed rights to operate two bingo halls from the 1993 settlement, but has not re-opened any gaming parlor since the Rock Hill hall closed in 2006.