Catawbas elect Rodgers new chief

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- As the sun rose above the Longhouse at the Catawba Indian Reservation on Sunday morning, Donald Rodgers heard his name announced as the new chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, signaling a new era for the tribe.

"I could just feel the relief, but also the weight of responsibility," Rodgers, 39, said Sunday afternoon after staying up all night while votes were counted. Polls closed at 7 p.m. Saturday, but results weren't announced until around 6 a.m. Sunday.

"It was almost symbolic because I feel like this is a new day for our people," Rodgers said.

Rodgers defeated three other candidates in Saturday's tribal election with 260 votes. Bill Harris tallied 185 votes to finish second, former assistant chief Buck George had 107 and Dean Canty tallied 85 votes, said election supervisor Steve Rast. The tribe also elected officers and voted down an amended constitution, he said.

Rodgers, a counselor for Alliance Credit in Charlotte, becomes the first chief elected since Gilbert Blue won the position in 1973. Blue resigned in March amid growing criticism.

"Gilbert did a good job for the time he was there," Rodgers said. "But it's time for a change."

Rodgers said he plans to unite a tribe fractured by controversy in recent years. Since the tribe won a settlement with the U.S. government in 1993, leadership has been criticized for not holding regular elections and updating the constitution. There also have been numerous lawsuits and disagreements about gaming operations, health care and infrastructure.

Rodgers, who campaigned door-to-door after being asked to run for chief by a group of supporters, promises to reach out to members of the tribe of all ages and viewpoints to begin settling disputes, he said.

"I grew up on the reservation, and I have a great love for all these folks," he said. "We need to forget about all the bickering and fighting. The only thing that matters about the past is our heritage."

One of the first moves Rodgers will make as chief is to hold an open meeting of the general council Aug. 4. He said he wants to hear from all tribe members before moving forward.

Rodgers said whether the nation pursues casino gaming in Marion County -- a plan put on the table earlier this summer -- or another option will depend on public opinion. He said he prefers to represent the people than govern by a personal agenda.

"This is not 'The Donald Rodgers Show,'" he said. "This is the 'We' show. Big decisions like casinos, bingo, land purchases and changes to the constitution, those need to go before the people."

Former Assistant Chief Buck George, who decided to run for chief after 36 years at his assistant's post, said he was happy the election finished smoothly.

"It might be time for me to step down," he said. "I was hoping to go 4 more years, but that's not what the people wanted."

George, who helped broker the 1993 settlement, said he was thankful and proud of the time he was allowed to serve. He said the next few years will be crucial for the tribe, and the newcomers will have their hands full.

"They better be ready to work," George said. "It's not all fun and games. There's a lot of important work to be done."

Harris and Canty could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Voters also elected representatives for several other offices in Saturday's election.

• Gene Blue was elected assistant chief with 253 votes, narrowly defeating Jackie Canty who had 240 nods, Rast said.

• Jason Harris, a former member of the executive committee, was elected secretary/treasurer by a wide margin with 393 votes, Rast said.

• Four at-large candidates were voted to the tribe's executive committee. Melissa Funderburk, Butch Sanders, Leigh Anne Bickett and John Williford were the top four out of a six-candidate field, Rast said.

• An amended constitution failed by a margin of 314 against to 295 in favor.

"Everything went very smooth," Rast said. "It certainly was a big event for the tribe, but it was uneventful as far as elections go."

Rast said a total of 642 mostly mail-in ballots were cast. Almost 1,800 Catawbas nationwide, out of 2,600 tribe members, were eligible to vote, he said.

Rast was contracted by the Catawbas as a consultant for the election. He is chairman of the York County Election Board, but the Catawba elections were conducted independently, he said.

Rast said the handwritten ballots were read one at a time, and the tally was observed by an election board appointed by the Catawba executive committee. Each candidate also had an appointed observer to ensure accuracy, Rast said.

Rodgers said he was proud of the Catawba people for voting peacefully. He said he hopes the unified spirit of the election will give momentum to adopting an amended constitution and solving disputes in the future.

"Last night proves that even with our differences we can come together, laugh, have fun and move forward," he said. "This is an exciting time for our people."