IRVING – All across America, bitter, ugly, hard-fought political campaigns are entering their final days.
Candidates for offices from president of the United States to Erie County comptroller have been slugging it out for months. Some candidates attack each other with commercials and press releases so nasty they give voters headaches.
But when it comes to playing hardball politics, nobody plays any harder than the candidates in the Seneca Indian Nation. This year’s campaign for Seneca president has been especially contentious.
A few recent incidents show just how nasty:
• At a Halloween party run by the political organization backing Barry E. Snyder Sr., a man running for assessor on Snyder’s ticket showed up in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, with a “Rob Porter” campaign poster hanging across his chest. Current Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter – now running for treasurer – is Snyder’s political arch enemy. A Snyder supporter said the intent of the costume was to show that Porter is “evil, like someone from the KKK.”
• Backers of Porter and his ally, presidential candidate Richard E. Nephew, sent voters postcards with Barry Snyder’s photo on the front. Snyder is a four-time president who has been active in Seneca politics since the 1960s. Above the photo was a caption reading: “How much money can one man steal from the Seneca Nation over five decades in SNI politics?” Snyder has denied ever stealing money from the Senecas.
• The same political organization sent out cards featuring a photo of businessman Aaron Pierce, an independent candidate for president. The photo had Pierce’s head superimposed on the body of a chubby baby, wearing a diaper. The caption reads: “The Seneca Nation presidency is not a job for disconnected rookie millionaires who are under Federal investigation.” Pierce, who runs a cigarette company that – according to court papers – is under investigation by the feds, denies any wrongdoing.
• Four large Nephew campaign billboards were destroyed on Thursday night, and Porter’s backers claim that more than 200 “Porter for Treasurer” signs have been stolen or destroyed.
In recent weeks, The Buffalo News has been bombarded with emails, phone calls and press releases containing scandalous allegations about the five candidates for president – Snyder, Nephew, Pierce, Cyrus Schindler and Cochise RedEye.
And in a tribe where candidates are allowed to bribe voters with cash and other considerations, some candidates have been holding “meet-and-greet” parties for weeks. Free meals, department store gift cards and other freebies – sometimes including beer and hard liquor – are handed out to voters. One candidate told The Buffalo News he expects that Seneca political parties will be paying voters up to $500 each on Election Day, Nov. 6.
Senecas who hold jobs with the tribal government, or those who have close relatives in tribal jobs, face other pressures before each election. The tribal government employs about 1,300 people, and more than 3,000 more work for the three casinos owned by the Senecas.
“When you get a job with the tribe, you realize you only are assured of a job for two years,” said one Seneca woman who works for the tribe. “Every two years, a new president is elected. If you back the wrong person, you’re out of a job. You work from election to election.”
According to many Senecas, despite token efforts to stop it, vote-buying gets more prevalent with every election.
The amount of money doled out on Election Day seems to vary, from person to person. Usually, people who travel to Seneca Territory from out of town to vote get the biggest paychecks. The Senecas do not allow absentee ballots. No matter where in the world they live, Senecas have to travel to Irving or Salamanca to cast a vote.
“Last election, I went out and got payments from three different political parties,” said Cynthia Cruz, 43, a Seneca who lives on the Cattaraugus Territory. “One [party] gave me $30, one gave me $40 and one gave me $50. Then, I went into the voting booth and voted for who I wanted to vote for. I have seven kids. It gave me enough so I could make a car payment.”
Cash payments to voters, however, do not guarantee a big voter turnout. Seneca officials say voter apathy is a major problem almost every election year. “That’s why we have to pay people to vote,” one candidate said.
When Porter was elected president in November 2010, the Senecas reported that 2,167 people voted in the presidential race. There are about 8,000 Senecas, about half of them of voting age.
Although only a relative handful of people vote in their elections, changes in the Seneca Nation do affect the outside world, mainly because the Senecas are now one of the 10 biggest employers in Western New York. In a region where good jobs are hard to come by, the Senecas say their government and business operations, including casinos, employ about 5,200 people. The Senecas say they spend more than $630 million a year in salaries, goods and services in Western New York.
Charlotte Pappan, 75, a Seneca who lives in Irving, said she plans to vote for Pierce. But she said she understands the frustration and apathy that causes many Senecas to stay away from the voting booth.
“The campaigns are always nasty. It’s all about greed,” Pappan said. “The greediness of the white people has taken over our nation. There’s so much money coming in from our casinos, it’s astonishing to me.”
Restaurant worker Beau John, 24, said he believes too many Seneca office holders seem to be in politics for the money.
“It’s just like the race for the U.S. presidency,” said Cruz. “[Candidates] tell you what you want to hear. Then, when they get into office, they do what they want to do.”
Some confusion surrounds this year’s presidential race, because two different candidates claim to represent the Seneca Party, the political organization that has dominated Seneca politics for decades.
In 2010, Snyder’s son, Scott Snyder, headed the Seneca Party, but he was voted out of his leadership post by allies of Porter. This year, the Snyder family started a splinter group, which they also call the Seneca Party.
Both Snyder and Nephew, who is chairman of the Tribal Council, have been putting out campaign literature bearing the same seal of the Seneca Party.
Snyder’s political group held a Halloween costume party last Saturday in a volunteer fire hall in Irving, and the costume worn by a Snyder ally – assessor candidate David Pierce – touched off a controversy.
Pierce showed up in a white KKK robe and pointed hood, with a “Rob Porter” campaign sign on his chest. He carried a white cross with KKK on it in red letters. A photograph shows Barry Snyder and other Seneca office-seekers standing next to Pierce in the KKK costume.
In statements issued to The News, Porter and Nephew both expressed outrage that Snyder and his political allies would allow such display at one of their events.
“This picture is infuriating and shows to what extent people will go with political dirty tricks,” Porter said. “[There] is no place for racism and stupidity in our political campaigns, or our nation.”
Marie Williams, who lives with Scott Snyder and is an active supporter of Barry Snyder’s candidacy, was at the party. She said Barry Snyder had no control over what costumes his supporters chose to wear, and she said the costume – in retrospect – was a bad idea.
“The costume was intended to make fun of Rob Porter ... to show he is evil, like someone from the KKK,” Williams said. “It was not intended in any way to make fun of black people, or to offend or insult black people ... In hindsight, we would have discouraged [Pierce] from wearing a costume like that.”
Why did Snyder and some of his running mates allow themselves to be photographed with a man wearing a KKK costume?
“The only reason that happened is that there was a contest for scariest costume. [Pierce] was in the contest, and he came up to the front of the room where Barry and others were standing,” Williams said.
She said the incident is “being blown out of proportion” by some Senecas who oppose Snyder.
“We have much more important issues at stake in this election,” Williams said.
In addition to a new president, treasurer and clerk, the Senecas will elect eight new members of their chief governing body, the Tribal Council. They’ll also elect police marshals, highway commissioners, assessors, and poormasters.
In recent weeks, almost every Seneca interviewed by The News has had at least one relative running for political office.
Come to buffalonews.com on Election Day for an all-day chat, live video and the latest election results.