By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
UPDATE May 8 – Seminole Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. was re-elected to another four-year term Monday, snuffing out the comeback hopes of two ex-chairmen, Mitchell Cypress and James Billie.
Out of a field of seven contenders, Osceolas captured 372 or 31 percent of the 1,198 votes cast across the tribe’s six reservations. Cypress finished second with 301, or 25.1 percent; Billie was third with just 272 votes, or 22.7 percent.
The top vote getter is elected. There is no runoff election.
James Holt II was elected president of the board of directors of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc., the federal corporation that operates all the tribe’s business interests except gambling. His position of president means he will also serve as vice chairman of the tribe’s five-member governing body, the Tribal Council.
Re-elected to the council were Mariann Billie, who represents the Big Cypress Reservation, Larry Howard, representative of the Brighton Reservation and Christopher Osceola, of the Hollywood Reservation. All three won with clear majorities of the votes cast.
May 5 – James E. Billie, the once and perhaps future chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, is back on the campaign trail.
At 79, the flamboyant and on-again, off-again former chairman of the governing Tribal Council, is taking on current Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., 50, and five other opponents in a tribal-wide vote set for Monday, May 8.
On its face, it appears to be a three-man race among Osceola, Billie and Mitchell Cypress, 75, vice chairman of the Tribal Council, outgoing president of the board of directors of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. and another ex-chairman. But there are rumblings among some tribe members that many newly registered younger Seminoles want new, younger leadership.
The Tribal Council, with the chair at the top, oversees the Seminoles’ multi-billion dollar worldwide gambling empire, headlined by its ownership since 2007 of Hard Rock International.
The other, less well-known candidates for council chair, all of whom were first identified by the tribe’s Supervisor of Elections on April 20, are Charles A. Osceola, Milo Osceola, Martha Tommie and Pete Osceola III, an employee in the tribe’s real estate office.
In addition to the at-large vote for chair, there are also local elections on the Seminole’s Big Cypress, Brighton and Hollywood reservations for three seats on the Tribal Council.
MORE TRIBAL ELECTIONS
Further, there is a tribal-wide election to choose the new president of the board of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. (STOF), which controls the tribe’s non-gambling businesses including its retail and wholesale smoke shops, citrus groves, sugarcane fields and cattle companies. Local votes will also be held in the Big Cypress, Brighton and Hollywood reservations for seats on STOFs board of directors. The tribe’s Fort Pierce, Immokalee and Tampa reservations do not have a representative on either the council or the STOF board.
A list of candidates for all Seminole offices can be found here.
The tribe has about 4,300 registered members, but how many of those members are eligible to vote is not known, and the tribe’s Supervisor of Elections, Naomi Wilson, did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone messages seeking details about the election process, including how votes are counted and election security.
Ballots cast on election day will be delivered to the tribe’s Hollywood headquarters building at 6300 Stirling Road after the polls close at 7:30 p.m. from voter locations on the Big Cypress and Brighton reservations. There, they will be counted along with mail-in ballots. As many as half of the Seminole tribe members are said to live off the Florida reservations.
The Seminoles, a federally recognized sovereign nation, are notoriously secretive and that’s reflected in this year’s election season.
CANDIDATES AREN’T TALKING TO MEDIA
While candidates have been busy appearing at insular campaign events like barbecues to press the flesh with voters on all six Seminole reservations, the leading candidates – Marcellus Osceola, James Billie and Mitchell Cypress – did not respond to Florida Bulldog’s requests for interviews.
Osceola has been dogged by recent corruption allegations and, after denying any wrongdoing, survived a recall petition and vote by the tribal council last autumn. He won the chairmanship in a special election in October 2016 after James Billie was ousted by the council the previous month following the submission of a recall petition alleging Billie had business conflicts of interest and was mismanaging tribal funds – notably that he wasted tens of millions of dollars using the tribe’s Aviation Department as “a personal transportation services for his staff, family, and cronies,” according to the petition obtained by Florida Bulldog.
Osceola was inaugurated on Jan. 9, 2017 to finish out the remainder of Billie’s term. Osceola was re-elected to a full four-year term in 2019.
Osceola’s biggest achievement as chairman – with considerable help from a small army of lobbyists – was the gambling compact he signed with Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2021. Under its terms, the tribe would be allowed to expand its casino offerings and control sports betting in Florida. The state would be guaranteed billions of dollars in return. The compact was later nullified by a federal judge after plaintiffs argued it would give the tribe a monopoly on sports betting in the state. U.S. government lawyers have asked an appeals court to overturn the district court’s ruling.
In 2022, as DeSantis was campaigning for re-election, the Seminole Tribe of Florida made two contributions totaling $2 million to the governor’s political action committee (PAC), Friends of Ron DeSantis, state election records show.
BILLIE TRIES ANOTHER COMEBACK
James Billie, a former alligator wrestler and Vietnam combat veteran, was the tribe’s controversial chieftain from 1979-2001 and again from 2011-2016. His first stint ended following his impeachment on allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual harassment. The harassment charges were later dropped, and Billie’s supporters say his ouster was because he was cracking down on spending by fellow council members.
It was Billie, however, who brought the Seminoles their first measure of great wealth when in 1979 he established high-stakes bingo, the tribe’s initial foray into big-time gambling. To make it happen, he took on and defeated in court former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
The Pennsylvania Crime Commission later said a group with ties to mobster Meyer Lansky financed the deal.
In a campaign biography he wrote and posted on Facebook, James Billie described himself as half Seminole and half Caucasian and said he was born on the Seminole’s old Dania Beach tourist attraction, a chimpanzee farm.
TRIBAL CULTURE’S ROLE
Billie embraces Seminole culture, which appears to be a defining line between Billie and incumbent chairman Marcellus Osceola. Billie’s campaign slogan: “Preserving and Protecting OUR Culture and Sovereignty!!!!”
“My first language is Miccosukee, then English,” Billie wrote. “At a young age, I learned legends, songs, identifying various bird’s edible and non-edible, all types of animals, snakes, ocean fish, freshwater fish, and plants. I learned all types of superstitions!!! My favorite animal is an Owl. To this day an owl will greet me wherever I go in the swamp or woods. Most of my family are additional people involved in annual ceremonies and celebrations.”
Some of the harshest language in the recall petition targeting Chairman Osceola was about his alleged involvement in arranging a 2019 contract for an ethnographic study of the Seminoles that some members viewed as an invasion of their private culture and sacred religious practices.
The recall petition accused Osceola of “conduct of disrespect to tribal members [that]demonstrates a disconnect, due to his lack of knowledge and participation in tribal culture, sacred ceremonies and language.”
Less controversy is known about Mitchell Cypress, who began his service as chairman in 2003, after Billie got the tribal council’s boot, and then won his own full four-year term in 2007. He lost to Billie in 2011.
As chairman, Cypress presided over a significant expansion of the tribe’s gambling operations. Most importantly, he led the tribe’s $965-million acquisition of the Hard Rock International chain, lifting the tribe’s profile across the world.