Longtime tribal chief trailing in election runoff

Published 7:19 pm Thursday, July 5, 2007

The suspense over who will be chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians dragged into a third day as election officials were expected to work on a full recount into the early morning Thursday.

It appeared Wednesday night that challenger Beasley Denson had defeated longtime Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Chief Phillip Martin in the runoff election before officials began the recount Wednesday night.

Denson, whose camp was “confident” of victory, led by 149 votes after the preliminary count of Tuesday’s polling place results and approved absentee ballots. But the status of 101 provisional ballots was unclear and more than 100 absentee ballots were contested and thrown out.

The official count will be announced Friday and the winner takes office Tuesday.

If Martin loses, it would end his nearly 30-year reign as chief, a tenure that included the tribe’s entry into the lucrative gaming market.

“Together, we have made history and you have my promise that I will never forget those who have honored me with their support during this tough election,” said Denson, 57, a former tribal council member.

Denson had 1,567 votes to Martin’s 1,418 after regular ballots and approved absentee ballots were counted.

Denson reached voters by reiterating the need for change, strategist Joe Binns said.

“He wants to give the Choctaw people the opportunities that they deserve in their tribal territories and their businesses,” Binns said. “Too long Choctaw have been passed over for managerial positions and supervisor positions. He’s going to make sure they’re put first.”

Wanda McMillan, a campaign manager for Martin, declined comment about the election until a winner was declared.

Martin has been chief of the more than 9,000-member tribe since 1979.

During that time, the quality of life has drastically improved, mostly because of the tribe’s two casinos operated in Neshoba County. The tribe’s unemployment rate dropped from 80 percent in the 1960s to the single digits today. The Choctaws are often singled out as being among the most economically successful of the nation’s 559 federally recognized tribes.

Still, some voters believe the 81-year-old Martin has become too old to lead.

“He needs to sit down and let a younger man take his place,” said Peter Steve, a volunteer for Denson’s campaign.

Steve said poverty is still a problem for some Choctaws, whose reservation covers 35,000 acres across 10 counties.

“If you look at their houses, they don’t have hardly nothing, no furniture,” Steve said of reservation dwellers. “The outside people don’t know that because they don’t visit Choctaw homes.”

Another of Denson’s campaign promises is to try to increase the distribution checks that each tribal member receives twice a year. The $500 checks come from revenue generated by tribal businesses.

“He’s definitely going to try to do that if it’s feasible,” Binns said.

Steve Bell, a 23-year-old whose wife and stepchildren are tribal members, said he’s surprised that the election is so close. Bell and his wife, who did not want to be identified, believe that Martin has been effective in creating a thriving economy for the tribe and the surrounding area.

“I think he’s done his job, but I guess a lot of people feel his age is getting to him,” Bell said. “My wife wanted the chief to stay in until death.”