Six of the seven candidates for a seat on the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council in this year’s Friday, Nov. 1 general election introduced their platforms and took questions from tribal members during Meet the Candidates Night on Thursday, Oct. 17 at the Sky Ute Casino Resort.
Among the candidates were four who have served on the council before: Erwin Edward Taylor, Joycelyn Peabody Dutchie, Melvin J. Baker, and incumbent Vice Chairman James M. Olguin. They were joined by new challengers Edward B. Box III and Estelle Monte Jimenez. Another candidate, Lena M. W. Atencio, was not present.
Each candidate began with a five-minute statement.
“I have started a lot of projects here that I have not completed,” Olguin said to kick things off. “This tribe, our tribe, has come forward in a lot of leaps and bounds, bringing us from a state of poverty to … where we have a lot of opportunity, a lot of benefits. However, it doesn’t stop here.”
Olguin is running on a “Protect Our Future” platform, which he said involves looking generations ahead with respect to each Tribal Council decision.
Next up was Jimenez, who acknowledged her relatively little political experience but said she would bring valuable business and cultural background to the council.
“I’ve owned two businesses. I’ve served the tribal membership with my food, catering, whatnot,” she said. “I know how to honor people, how to respect people. I also know how to take care. I’m a nurturer.”
Jimenez said the council needs someone who is willing to work with tribal members as an equal, not a superior.
“I know how it feels to be not treated so well. I promised myself that I would not treat people in a bad way,” she said.
Box then introduced his platform, saying the tribe must balance business interests and culture in every decision.
“I believe that business and culture, they do run side-by-side,” he said. “My opinion right now doesn’t really count, because the membership’s opinion counts. I’m a portal their opinion and their concerns.”
Dutchie said her past council terms have been focused on service to tribal members. She listed several areas of the tribal government in need of improvement, including the Tribal Court, Social Services and Human Resources.
“Do you guys have an individual that’s going to speak for you?” she asked the crowd. “When I was there, I answered the phone.”
Taylor said he’s running out of concern over what he sees as diminishing tribal sovereignty.
“I am very worried about our sovereignty and the loss of our tribal culture. I have seen many changes,” he said.
Taylor also pointed to the tribe’s justice system and social services as problem areas.
In his introduction, Baker highlighted his successes as director of the Tribal Housing Department.
“When I first started, about four-and-a-half years ago, there was nothing there,” he said. “We really have saved the tribe a ton of money.”
One of the major issues facing the tribe, Baker said, is lack of funding. Because of its business success in recent years, the tribe and its member receives far less federal funding than they once did, he said.
Most of the evening was devoted to a question-and-answer format. Moderator Beth Santistevan took questions in writing from tribal members and read them aloud, giving each candidate two minutes to respond.
One question sought each candidate’s vision for the future of the tribe. Box said as a council member, he would meet with members of the tribe to get a sense of their concerns first.
For her part, Jimenez said communication is key.
“The vision is we have to learn how to start talking to one another,” she said. “Nobody wants to share any information. I want to be a tool. I want to be a resource to be able to convey the messages.”
Olguin said the council must increase its focus on efforts that will benefit the tribe over the long term.
“We have to be visionaries,” he said. “In order to do that, there has to be collaboration amongst everyone.”
Dutchie defined her vision in one word: “employment.”
“[We have] to have our tribal members in there,” she said of the tribal government. “We spend a lot of money on education and educating our people, but we can’t even get a job in there.”
Taylor echoed the sentiment, saying tribal members are “the smarted people out here.”
“We have young tribal members that are getting educated. I would like to see them move into the positions and take their responsibility in the tribal government.”
Baker’s vision involved honoring the history of the tribe even as it moves forward.
“My vision is to maintain the integrity of the culture and the traditions of the tribe. We need to encourage people to partake in some of these things,” he said.
When faced with a question about a hypothetical ethics violation, every candidate said they would expect to be held accountable if guilty.
“If I ever did make a mistake … [I’d] step aside,” Box said.
“Ethics is something you live by on an everyday basis,” she said. “That is a given for me.”
Another question asked each of the four candidates with prior council experience why they should be given another shot.
“Having the opportunity to serve around 2001 with some of the elder [council members] … I learned a lot from them,” Baker said. “We can do a better job for the people. My vision and hope if elected is to bring them together.”
Taylor called on his experience in the 1970s working with past tribal leaders, including Leonard C. Burch.
“When you talk about leadership, when you talk about planning, these great people taught me a trained me,” he said. “They said ‘Do not forget your people. Put them first.’ I’m going to do that.”
Dutchie said in the past she fought for benefits to tribal members, such as bonuses, and would continue to do so.
“If I’m elected, I will be there for you people. I’m not there to be liked. I’m going to be there to do the job.”
Olguin, the only current council member seeking to keep his seat, said the tribe needs his leadership to continue making progress.
“Change will not occur unless people make things happen,” he said.