Cheryl Andrews-Maltais’s landslide victory as chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) last Sunday stunned some tribal members, and while the chairman-elect was surprised by her margin of victory, her opponent said he was not.
“I’m not surprised . . . the election was a case of the direction the tribe wanted to go and I support that,” said Donald S. Widdiss, who lost his seat in a 99-48 vote. Mr. Widdiss has been tribal chairman since 2004. “I was dedicated to change and pushed for change my whole term. I was sensing that people were unwilling to change. It is hard to pursue your agenda when people don’t want to take responsibility,” he said.
“I was cautiously optimistic based on the response I was getting from people but I did not expect the plurality,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said.
A total of 159 tribal members voted in the election, a low turnout by recent tribal chairman election standards. William Durwood Vanderhoop received one write-in vote and eleven ballots were left blank.
Twenty-two other voters were denied ballots because they lacked tribal identification or arrived minutes after the polls closed. The turnout was ten per cent higher than 2006 tribal elections but thirty per cent below the 2004 election turnout.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais’s two-to-one margin of victory was the greatest plurality in recent tribal memory.
In 2004, Mr. Widdiss unseated Beverly Wright 132-105, with 240 votes cast. The two elections prior to 2004 had three candidates and winners did not receive a majority of the votes cast.
Tribal chief Ryan Malonson, who is responsible for overseeing elections, said he was not surprised by the outcome. “That’s the nature of the beast up here. The results reflected what people want,” he said, adding: “It’s about change and when leadership changes, you need new ideas.” Mr. Malonson and medicine man Luther Madison will install Ms. Andrews-Maltais on Saturday, Jan. 5. Her term runs for three years. Ms. Andrews-Maltais lives in Edgartown and works full time for the tribe as the historic preservation officer. She is married with two children.
Leadership, or lack of leadership, was clearly a central theme in the election. Many tribal members privately expressed deep dissatisfaction with Mr. Widdiss’s leadership in the weeks before the election. They spoke about a drift away from tribal unity, pointing to decreased participation in government, low interest in tribal jobs, eroding social programs and poor communication.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she believes the tribal government structure works. “We have an executive administrator and questions and issues about day-to-day department management go through him. The chairman is the direct link to the administrator and the other three tribal officers are responsible to counsel the administrator as well. Unresolved issues go to full tribal council. The process can be challenging but not impossible or even difficult as long as we follow through,” she said.
She said her first priority is to find a replacement for her as tribal historic preservation officer, and then to review tribal affairs, including documents, contracts and reports. “There should be complete disclosure other than personnel information and records. Tribal members should be able to review any documents pertaining to tribal affairs,” she said. Three tribal officers ran unopposed. Eleanor M. Hebert was elected tribal council secretary with 112 votes, and tribal council members Naomi Carney and Mr. Vanderhoop were re-elected with 108 and 119 votes respectively. Berta Welch and Adriana Ignacio were elected to the 2007 Aquinnah Cultural Center board with 135 and 127 votes respectively.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais spent election day greeting voters and said she noted an influx of both off-Island tribal voters and Islanders who have been absent in recent elections. “From up-Island and down-Island, voters got out who hadn’t voted before or recently,” she said.
She pledged an open door policy and improved communications. “Tribal members should not learn about tribal matters from newspaper reports,” she said.