- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In a close election that ran overnight, the Cherokee Nation elected a new principal chief Sunday, with final results posted on the tribe’s website showing longtime councilman Bill John Baker defeating three-term incumbent Chad Smith by 11 votes.

More than 15,000 votes were cast, and the margin between the men had been fewer than 30 since late Saturday.

The Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma’s largest American Indian tribe and one of the nation’s biggest, with a membership approaching 300,000 people. The Tahlequah, Okla.-based tribe has a 14-county jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma.

Mr. Baker, a Tahlequah businessman, will take the oath of office Aug. 14.

“I’m humbled and honored to be the new Chief of the Cherokee Nation,” he said in a statement. “I want to thank everyone who supported me. … I think it’s fair to say that every vote counted. We’ve come far, but we have far to go.

“Every day on the campaign trail I have said ‘we all come from one fire.’ Now that the election is over, I hope we can all join together to keep our fire burning brighter than ever before. “

A noticeably fatigued Mr. Smith expressed appreciation to his supporters and staff, “who accomplished great things in the last decade. We’ll take action to review and affirm the ballot and the election.

“When you have 11 votes out of 15,000, you want to ensure that the count is affirmed,” he told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

Mr. Baker led in the balloting for much of Saturday night, at times by more than 700 votes, before Mr. Smith made a late run and seized a slim lead shortly after 10 p.m. — but that margin quickly narrowed to single digits.

Tribal election officials spent the night behind closed doors, scrutinizing so-called “challenge” ballots, which are similar to provisional ballots, before determining the winner. Supporters of both men set up shop outside the election headquarters in Tahlequah as they waited.

The turnout for this year’s election was considerably higher than in 2007, when Mr. Smith won a third term as 13,903 voters cast a ballot.

The campaign between the two men was often contentious, and they combined to spend nearly a half-million dollars as they sought the chief’s job.

During the campaign, Mr. Smith emphasized the tribe’s economic success during his tenure. He touted the creation of more than 5,000 “stable jobs” by the tribe during the past decade and said that most of those jobs had gone to Cherokees, something Mr. Baker disputed.

Mr. Baker criticized Mr. Smith for using a tribal airplane for travel and called for the tribe to spend more of its gaming revenues on health care. Mr. Baker said the tribe shouldn’t settle for being good when it could be better.

Tribal voters rejected measures that would have eliminated term limits for the offices of principal chief and deputy chief and for seats on the tribal council. The term limits were put in place eight years ago. Mr. Smith had supported repealing them, even though he said during the campaign he didn’t intend to run again. Mr. Baker supported keeping the term limits.

Chris Soap, the stepson of the late, legendary Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller, faces a runoff next month in the race for deputy chief. Mr. Soap received almost 47 percent of the vote in a four-way race. His opponent in the runoff will be Joe Crittenden, who finished second with a little more than 36 percent.

Mr. Soap was Mr. Smith’s running mate, while Mr. Baker opted not to ally himself with any of the four deputy chief candidates, saying he would try to work with whoever won the election.

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