- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - The three candidates vying to become the new leader of the Cherokee Nation next month disagree fundamentally on how they’d run one of the country’s largest American Indian tribes if they got into office.

About the only thing they find common ground on is a deep-seated desire to unseat incumbent Principal Chief Bill John Baker, whose populist campaign touts streamlined government, building homes for the needy and opening new health centers around the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction in northeastern Oklahoma.

Baker isn’t straying too far from a formula that helped him win in 2011 - an election marked by several recounts between him and then-incumbent Chad Smith, court intervention and a new election that dragged the campaign into the fall. This year’s contest is June 27.

But Baker rejects any notion he’s vulnerable in 2015, and shrugs off the collected strategy to oust him by Smith; late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller’s widower, Charlie Soap, and state Rep. Will Fourkiller.

“The same folks were working to beat me last time, so it’s no different now,” Baker told The Associated Press in an interview. “It’s not new. They didn’t like me then and they don’t like me know. But they have seen progress in the Cherokee Nation.”

Baker’s message to the candidates and voters in the 317,000-member tribe: “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

The principal chief, similar to an American president, oversees a $750 million budget, 9,000 employees, casino operations across the state and the country’s largest tribal health care system.

Smith arguably has heaped the most criticism upon a second Baker term. Smith claims Baker is pandering to his base by making promises he can’t hope to deliver on, such as how many homes he plans to build for needy Cherokees.

“Fundamentally, his is a dog and pony show, and what I’m talking about is a genuine interest in listening to people, not only what their problems are, but how they can contribute to the nation.”

As for his fellow challengers beating a path to Baker?

“I think there’s a collected interest we can each do the job better (than Baker),” Smith said.

Count state Rep. Will Fourkiller among the lot. He says his goal is to dismantle what he says is the political machine that has become tribal government in the past administrations, strip out the bureaucracy and make the government more accessible to citizens.

He says it’s time for new blood because he believes the tribal complex has “turned into party politics from the former administration to the current administration; they’re fighting back and forth, the council’s still split.”

Fourkiller’s hoping voters will recognize a fresh voice when he tells them he’s never been on tribal council and removed from what he’s labeled the party machine.

Charlie Soap, the widower of late Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, is making his bid for chief because he says the current administration isn’t doing enough for rural Cherokees, who live in vast portions of the tribal jurisdiction.

Soap alleges resources for people there are shelved in favor of job development opportunities around cities like Tahlequah and Tulsa.

“Businesses are doing well, creating revenues for the nation, but there’s a need in the communities that are struggling to have resources coming in. I think that’s where it’s been weak.” Soap said. “These guys raise millions of dollars for a seat; why can’t they raise money to help these people in the rural communities?”

Baker, who said earlier he welcomed the challenge from the three challengers, said he’s worked to cut nepotism from the ranks of Cherokee leadership during his time in office, as well as build houses for his people, send more citizens to college than ever and ensure the tribe hires enough doctors and support staff for its clinics.

“I do not believe Cherokee people want to go back to the way things were,” Baker said.

And for his challengers?

“You can’t make 100 percent of the people happy all the time.” Baker said.

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