Catawba tribe anxiously awaits election results

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- Members of the Catawba Indian tribe waited for hours Saturday night to learn who they'd elected as their new chief, only to be told they'd have to wait a little longer.

Results in the four-way race to become tribe's first new leader in nearly 40 years were still being tallied late Saturday as dozens of members gathered outside the doors of the reservation's Longhouse.

Up for chief were Timothy "Dean" Canty, Evans "Buck" George Jr., William F. "Bill" Harris Jr. and Donald Wayne Rodgers.

The crowd was told around 9:30 p.m. that there were still a few hundred votes to be counted and that results likely wouldn't be known until around midnight.

"The suspense is killing me," one lady said just before the announcement.

The tribe also turned out to elect an assistant chief, a secretary/treasurer and executive committee members. Also on the ballot was a vote for a new tribal constitution.

The scene at the Longhouse looked more like a tailgate party than an election, as members sat around in lawn chairs, laughing and snapping pictures. Tribal members said they were excited about the prospects of a new direction for the tribe after years of bitter feuds and uncertainty about the future.

"It's a big event today, the opportunity to elect some people we feel ... will fulfill the needs of the tribe," said Keith Brown, 56, who lives on the reservation. "We have a lot of good tribal assets. ... We just need the management -- with a compassionate hand."

'Plus for the tribe'

Many described the atmosphere as cordial and said they were pleased to see a strong turnout.

"It's a plus for the tribe," said Jack Canty, 59, one of eight candidates for assistant chief. "It shows they do have an interest in changes in the leadership."

The election came four months after the abrupt resignation of Chief Gilbert Blue, who led the Catawbas for nearly 40 years but faced growing criticism toward the end of his tenure.

Dissident tribal members describe Blue, 73, as out of touch with the demands of his job -- and unwilling to listen to opposing viewpoints. They accuse him of mismanaging the tribe's finances and say he refused to hold elections on a regular schedule in keeping with the tribal constitution.

Blue denies the charges but has acknowledged the timing is right for a new leader.

"My only concern is that whoever gets in there is someone who will have concern for the tribe," Blue told The Herald recently.

A number of pressing issues confront the Catawbas. The new administration must review financial records considered by some to be in disarray and help resolve plans for video poker facilities elsewhere in the state. A new constitution is needed. Housing and health-care programs also need attention.

The Catawbas hoped as many as 1,000 ballots would be cast Saturday, mostly through absentee voting. The number of ballots cast wasn't available late Saturday.

The tribe has 1,800 eligible voters nationwide and 2,600 total members.