Emily Baucum, News On 6
TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma -- After an all-night wait as the final votes were counted, the Cherokee Nation has elected a new principal chief.
Final election results posted shortly before 7 a.m. Sunday on the tribal website indicated Bill John Baker has unseated three-term incumbent Chad Smith. The results show Baker leading Smith by 11 votes out of more than 15,000 cast. The vote margin between the men had been fewer than 30 votes since late Saturday.
Baker is a longtime tribal councilman and Tahlequah businessman. He will take the oath of office on Aug. 14.
Political signs dotted the landscape as voters made their choices Saturday.
"It's important that we express our opinions through our votes and support the people who are doing our work for the Cherokee Nation," said Pat Marlar, voter.
Incumbent Chad Smith said he's been doing that work for 12 years as Principal Chief.
"We've created 5,000 jobs and increased our health care tremendously," Smith said.
He's asking voters for another four years to tackle problems.
"Well we still have a long way to go in education," he said.
His opponent Bill John Baker agrees -- and says it's Smith's fault.
"He just cut scholarships to any child that could get Pell. He cut their scholarship from $2,000 that we were giving to every Cherokee child - cut it down to $500," Baker said.
Baker's served on the tribal council for 12 years. He's a Tahlequah businessman who says he's ready to take his CEO experience nationwide.
"What sets us apart is actions. I've fussed with him over employee bonuses. I've fussed with him over minimum wage," Baker said.
Both candidates say this campaign's been dirtier than most, and they're blaming each other for the mud-slinging.
"Well the other guy imported Washington, D.C.-style politics, and that's something foreign and alien to our people," Smith said.
"I think the truth has been twisted like a wet washcloth and it hadn't been me," Baker said.
They do agree on one thing: a love for the Cherokee Nation's past.
"The Cherokee Nation has been around thousands of years," Baker said.
"We've been a government since before there was a United States," Smith said.
As for the nation's future -- both men say that's in the hands of voters.
"I found it all important or I wouldn't have wasted any time - well, it's not wasting - but I wouldn't have been here to vote," Marlar said.
The top of the ticket always gets a lot of attention, but Cherokee voters have other decisions to make. They voted on who will be Deputy Principal Chief... plus eight tribal council seats.
There are also three Constitutional amendments on the ballot that deal with term limits and the use of special elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.