Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local.
Mr. O’Neill learned his truth growing up in the ethnic enclaves of East Cambridge ward politics, a lesson that took him to the chairmanship of the U.S. House of Representatives.
He would have been at home in Aquinnah this week as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) stages its biennial election on Sunday. There is a heated contest for tribal council chairman.
Incumbent chairman Donald Widdiss is opposed by Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, who has campaigned vigorously for the seat. There are 863 members eligible to vote, according to the tribal membership office in Aquinnah. About 340 tribal members live on the Island, but the number of eligible voters among that group could not be confirmed.
Tribal elections are always difficult to predict because most voters, tied by family and friendship to virtually every candidate, keep their preferences to themselves until the voting booth curtain closes behind them.
But some believe the election for council chairman will be close.
The tribe’s new quest to get involved in casino plans in Massachusetts is a backdrop for the election. Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed licensing three casinos in the state; the plan is set to be taken up by the state legislature this winter. Recently the Aquinnah Wampanoags announced their affiliation with Seneca Nation, an upstate New York tribe that has experience in the casino business.
Both Ms. Maltais and Mr. Widdiss support the alliance with Seneca Nation and the casino initiative.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais has been campaigning off-Island, including in New Bedford and on Cape Cod, encouraging tribal members there to make the trip to the Island this weekend and to vote for her.
Eligible voters are tribal members over 18 who present themselves with a tribal identification card at the polling place on Sunday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. There are no absentee ballots.
In addition to the council chairman contest, tribal secretary Eleanor Hebert and tribal council members Naomi Carney and Durwood Vanderhoop are running unopposed. Candidates take out papers in August and return them by the second week of September; 25 signatures are required in order for a candidate to be listed on the ballot. In addition to the elections, the tribe will hold its annual meeting at noon on Sunday.
The two candidates for council chairman offer distinct personalities and points of view.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais is described by tribal peers as bright and tenacious with a mission directed at culture, heritage and delivering programs to the Aquinnah tribal community, particularly for children and elders.
Mr. Widdiss is described by the same peers as a more polished public figure. His agenda speaks more to development of tribal economic interests and to separation of tribal business management from day-to-day operations.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais is pointed in her criticism of Mr. Widdiss and his stewardship.
“Right now our tribe isn’t healthy. We are not working together, A lot of services to children and elders haven’t been prioritized — the after school program has been essentially dismantled. Our tribal rights have not been honored. There is no accountability. Financial audits have not been completed. In the past three years we have not moved forward. Members are leaving tribal jobs,” she said.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said her focus as chairman would include making tribal membership more inclusive regardless of where people live, and to reestablish children’s programs. “Particularly for younger kids,” she said.
She also listed improved elder care, developing and nourishing tribal culture as well as economic development and self-sufficiency, including gaming, as critical to tribal health. She pointed to her work with various government agencies as a benefit to her candidacy.
Mr. Widdiss agreed the election “could be tough. They generally are.” His comments focused on the need to create a viable economic model — separate from gaming. He said he plans to propose a model at the annual meeting on Sunday with an eye toward establishing a tribal economic development corporation by the end of the year.
Responding to criticism, Mr. Widdiss said: “We have failures every day and if it happened on my watch, ultimately I’m responsible, That’s the nature of the job. Our programs are no better or worse than they were three years ago.” He also said:
“We need to separate business from politics. We need to attract the best talent, tribal and nontribal, to manage our business and we cannot micro-manage them, It requires a leap of faith by the tribal council.
“We need to be part of a bigger dynamic that’s happening with indigenous people all over the world. We don’t have to spend all of our time fighting for inadequate funding, taking less than we deserve,” he said.
Tip also said that what goes around, comes around. On Sunday, the tribe will determine where it stops.