The Case of Buel Anglen
Yesterday I shared with you a proposal for establishing an independent, qualified Election Commission and provided an example of the impact of a politicized Election Commission resulted in my disqualification from running for Deputy Chief in 2015. But as we enter our current election season, another potentially politicized case has been before the Commission. Tribal Councilor Buel Anglen represents District 13 in the Cherokee Nation, which includes portions of north Tulsa, Owasso, Sperry, and Skiatook. With only one short break, he has served on the Tribal Council since 2003 and has frequently been elected with over 70% of the vote. In short, he is enormously well-liked in his area. Because his first election was under the rules of the 1975 Constitution, there were no term limits on him at that time. By the time he ran for re-election in 2007, there was a new Constitution that implemented term limits (two terms of service before having to sit out a full term before running again). But the new Constitution could not be applied retroactively, so the election he won in 2007 was considered his first term under those new limits.
Because the new Constitution also mandated staggered terms for the first time, about half of the Tribal Councilors elected in 2007 ran for seats that were designated as one-time, 6-year terms in order to achieve the “stagger.” The district Buel won was a seat that was designated as having a 6-year term going to the winner. Therefore his first term under the new Constitution’s rules lasted until 2013.
By 2011, the Council had redistricted from nine districts to five districts, each having three councilors. Buel’s district was consolidated as part of the new District Five. The other two councilors in that district, each elected to 4-year terms, were Cara Cowan Watts and Lee Keener. For Cowan-Watts, it would be her second term in office under the new Constitution and for Keener, his first. Because Buel had a 6-year term, he did not run for election in 2011 since his term wasn’t up until 2013. In 2013, he would still be eligible to run for a second term, this time for four years.
Except…the Council re-apportioned and re-districted yet again before the 2013 mid-term election. And with a new majority bloc that wanted fifteen districts, the districts that were re-drawn were badly gerrymandered, protecting some of the councilors in the majority bloc and eliminating the seats of others. As part of the gerrymandering, a new district was re-drawn that was intended to eliminate the seat held by Cara Cowan-Watts, one of the power bloc’s most outspoken critics. But unbeknownst to the councilors in the power bloc, Councilor Cowan-Watts had moved and now had a legal residence that, while still within her former district, was not within the new district that had been drawn with the intent of eliminating her. Instead, as the new districts were drawn, she and Buel were now in the same district and it was Buel who ended up getting eliminated since his term ended in 2013. Therefore the district did not have an election until 2015, and it meant that people in some portions of that district went from 2007 until 2015 without being able to vote for their councilor. Their councilor was effectively chosen for them by the Council as a result of re-districting before the 2013 election.
But in 2015, Cowan-Watts’ second term expired and Anglen ran again after having been out of office for two years. He was again elected by an overwhelming majority. Did I mention that Buel is very well-liked by his constituents?!
And this year, Buel filed again for re-election. He drew only one opponent, the same person he had defeated in 2015. But this year, quite unexpectedly, his opponent filed a challenge to Buel’s candidacy claiming that Buel had not sat out a full four year “term” as required by the Constitution and thus should be disqualified from running this year. The Election Commission agreed and disqualified Buel Anglen to run for re-election in 2019.
This is an unusual case that results from the fact that Buel Anglen has represented three different districts in the past sixteen years. One was under a 9-district system, one under a 5-district system, and the latest under a 15-district system. The districts he has represented have had different numbers, and they have encompassed somewhat different territories. It’s hard to argue that Buel has represented the same district for two consecutive terms. He did not “sit out” between 2013 and 2015, he was eliminated from the council because his district was re-drawn and someone else was defaulted into representing it during those years. There is a strong legal argument that his election in 2015 was therefore a “start over” representing a new district from any that he had represented before and that he has only served that district for one term.
Is this a political decision on the part of the Election Commission? Is it a determination by an unqualified body? It’s hard to say and such an unanticipated situation that our Constitution and election law really don’t address. The decision seems to have been made on the recommendation of their attorney, and given my own experience with his recommendations in 2015 around my own disqualification, I feel he exhibits a strong political bias.
At that time, the majority on the Court also exhibited a strong political bias, arriving at a decision that flabbergasted even the opposing attorney in the case as well as the EC’s own intern. So the concern is that anything can happen, even the most blatant political ruling. Buel has appealed the Election Commission’s decision to the Cherokee Supreme Court. The hearing will be on Monday, March 11. The composition of this Court is different than what it was in 2015, and we will hope that they arrive at a fair and neutral determination based on their most independent interpretations of the law.
I do know one thing. If the Court upholds the Election Commission’s disqualification of Buel Anglen and his sole opponent - a man he defeated by about a 3-to-1 margin four years ago - is defaulted into office without an actual election, the people in this district are going to be very, very upset. (Did I mention that Buel is really, really well-liked in his district?!) This is not the way to get into office and have the support of your constituents.
And it will mean that once again, a portion of the population in what is today called District 13 will have had only one opportunity since 2007 to vote for their representative, as Buel Anglen has been eliminated as a councilor by re-districting and now by possible disqualification. I am really pulling for a good and fair outcome for Buel and for the people of District 13. Stay tuned…