At issue were some 2,600 African-Americans known as “Freedmen.” They had been members of the Cherokee tribe as the original treaty stated that slaves of Cherokees would be registered. More than ten years ago, Cherokees held a referendum and by more than three-to-one voted to kick the Freedmen out of the tribe. The only caveat was that the Freedmen were allowed to remain until a lawsuit they had filed was fully considered. That hadn’t happened until just two weeks before the second election when the Cherokee Supreme Court officially ruled the Freedmen out of the tribe, leaving them without votes in the second contest between Smith and Baker.
The politics of it was obvious to us—the Freedmen supported Baker and revoking their votes gave Smith about a 1,200 vote advantage. The Freedmen s ued in federal court and Judge Henry Kennedy of the D.C. District Court ruled the Freedmen could vote. It was a victory for Baker, but Smith was just beginning to use it against us.
On the campaign trail, Smith immediately tied Baker to the BIA (Bossing Indians Around is how the acronym is typically stated in Native American country). Smith was trying to frame the election as his standing up for Cherokees and Baker standing with the black Freedmen.
We decided to redouble our efforts in the Baker camp, and when absentee and early voting opened we had already picked up more than 1,000 ballots by hand. This was where the work we had put in during the first race really paid off. With a targeted campaign based on phone IDs, volunteers knocked on 3,000 doors—twice. We also figured we had to win the election by more than the 1,200 Freedmen votes, so our mail became more direct and biting.
Smith pounded the race issue in the 14 counties and continued claiming to outlanders that we would abolish their right to vote. We hit him for being out of touch, not sharing Cherokee values, refusing to spend $40,000 to refurbish cemeteries that dated back to the “Trail of Tears,” and of course the airplane. All of our mail to the outlanders was negative and comparative, as we had to stop Smith from running up huge numbers in that arena.
Given what had happened in the first contest, we also demanded the Carter Center monitor the election. The organization, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, monitors elections in fraud-prone locations across the globe. The Carter Center has only monitored two elections ever in the United States. Both were for the Cherokee Nation.
In the end, Baker won the second contest by almost 1,700 votes, defeating Smith 54 percent to 46 percent in a race that saw a record turnout. Smith balked—again—challenging the results, but this time the Cherokee Supreme Court unexpectedly ruled Baker the winner. He was sworn in five hours later.
More than 30 years of power was broken with a clear message, a solid and well-thought out phone program and a mail effort that ensured the race would be fought on our terms right from the start. The race for chief of the Cherokee Nation isn’t one you would have thought could be run with a modern campaign game plan, but we suspect it will be from here on out.
Dane Strother is president of Strother Strategies, a D.C.-based Democratic consulting firm.