IRVING – Barry Earl Snyder Sr., a 72-year-old battle-scarred political veteran who already has served four terms as president, was returned to office Tuesday night by Seneca Nation voters.
Snyder’s election followed one of the most bruising and hard-fought elections in the history of the region’s most high-profile Indian tribe.
The dominant figure in Seneca politics over the past 40 years, Snyder defeated five other candidates, beating his closest challenger, Tribal Council Chairman Richard E. Nephew, by 225 votes. The election followed a nasty campaign marked by harsh accusations that the outgoing president – Robert Odawi Porter – and Nephew made against Snyder.
Nephew and Porter accused Snyder of malfeasance in connection with a crooked land deal for a Lewiston golf course and with fund raising for a charity group to help people with diabetes. At one point in the campaign, Nephew and Porter supporters sent a post card with Snyder’s photograph on the front, bearing the caption, “How much money can one man steal from the Seneca Nation?”
Snyder denied the accusations against him, and voters put him back in the office he last held from 2008 to November 2010.
“I want to thank the Seneca people for once again believing that leadership of our nation is by the people,” Snyder said. “The past two years have broken the spirit and confidence that our people have in Seneca political leadership. We will not look back but we will move forward with an open and transparent government...Now is the time for the Seneca.”
Snyder’s arch-rival, Porter, was defeated by Snyder running mate Rodney Pierce for the office of treasurer.
Pierce is Porter’s brother-in-law.
Six candidates – the largest number in decades – sought the presidency, which pays an annual salary of $185,000 and carries the power to hire and fire thousands of people. The Seneca president is believed to be the highest-paid elected official in Western New York, making $80,000 more than the mayor of Buffalo and $82,000 more than the Erie County executive.
Candidates for the presidency were Nephew; two former presidents, Snyder and Cyrus Schindler; businessman Aaron Pierce; former Erie County Sheriff’s Detective Cochise RedEye; and Shaun Humphrey, a union carpenter and bricklayer.
Snyder received 929 votes to Nephew’s 704, according to the Seneca Nation.
Pierce defeated Porter by a count of 1,105 to 786.
Geraldine Huff was elected tribal clerk. Jeff Gill, Christina Jimerson, Linda Doxtator, Shelley Huff, Morris Abrams, Arlene Bova, Kevin Printup and Mike Williams were elected to the Tribal Council, the governing body of the tribe.
Keith White Sr. and Kara John were elected as chief marshals. Lance Cooper, Darby Leroy, Diana Maybee, David Isaac, Clifford Pierce, and Randy White were elected as marshals. Elected as assessors were Stanley Jimerson, Terry Nephew, David Pierce, Brenda Redeye, Sally Huff and Ronald Kenjockety.
Elmer Logan and Jason John were elected as highway commissioners, and Llona Leroy and Rae Lynn George were elected as poormasters.
Porter ran for treasurer because tribal laws prevent anyone from serving as president two terms in a row.
With so many running for president, Senecas said, the voter turnout was among the biggest they have seen in decades. Early Tuesday evening, the Seneca polling place in Irving was packed with people waiting to cast votes.
“There are a lot of people voting today. I hear it’s been nonstop all day,” said one Seneca voter, Mary Steeprock.
“I’ve never seen this many candidates running in any of our elections,” said another voter, Matt Hill, 47, of Irving.
Hill, Steeprock and Shane Henhawk, 33, like many other voters, declined to say which candidate they voted for.
“A lot of us have relatives or friends who work for the Seneca government. ... These people have no civil service protection, and they’re afraid they’ll get fired if [government leaders] find out who they voted for,” one Seneca woman explained.
Though, technically, the practice of paying for votes is barred under the tribe’s election rules, Seneca candidates offer voters cash payments and other considerations.
Seneca sources told The Buffalo News that supporters of several candidates were actively buying votes Tuesday.
One Seneca woman said her son was paid $100 by one political group and then $60 by another.
A Seneca man said he was told that some people received more than $300 for their votes. People who traveled long distances to vote received more money than those who traveled short distances, several Senecas said.
“For a lot of the Seneca people, this is a big payday,” said Sally Snow, a Seneca who owns a popular restaurant and gas station in Irving. “I don’t accept money for my vote, but a lot of people do.”
“It goes on every election,” one Seneca official said. “Nobody files a complaint about it, and nobody ever enforces [the ban] on vote-buying.”
The Seneca president directly controls 1,300 tribal jobs and has strong influence over more than 3,800 casino jobs.
The Seneca Nation is now one of the region’s 10 largest employers, and the tribe spends more than $630 million a year on salaries, goods and services, many related to its three casinos.
Nephew and Snyder both said they represented the Seneca Party. Schindler started his own political organization, called the Peoples’ Party. RedEye, Pierce and Humphrey ran as independents.
In recent weeks, some of the candidates enticed voters with parties, free meals, alcohol and department store gift cards.
“We do help people with travel expenses, especially those who come in from out of state,” Snyder said before the election. “But once they get into that voting booth, we have no way of knowing who they vote for.”
.One controversial issue during the campaign was the nation’s 2006 land purchase in Lewiston for a golf course. An FBI investigation showed the Senecas paid $900,000 more for the land than it was worth and that $540,000 of that went to Timothy Toohey and Bergal Mitchell III, two longtime associates of Snyder. Snyder has never been charged in the case and denies any wrongdoing.