Seminoles’ Billie just misses on another comeback

The presidential election isn’t the only recent nail-biter that has been heightened by scandal. On Monday, the Seminole Tribe of Florida almost elected a leader that they have ousted. Twice.

The Seminoles, who run a $2.1 billion gambling empire in Florida, owe their prominence partly to the charismatic James Billie, who grew up wrestling alligators and was raised by his mother after his (white) father bolted. Billie was tribal chairman back in 1979 when the Seminoles opened a bingo hall in Hollywood, and he helped expand the business, including preserving an ancient Indian burial ground in Tampa – yep, that spot is now the home of a casino that’s among America’s ten largest.

Billie was voted out on September 28, following a recall petition and a tribal council meeting. But Seminole rules allow those who are ousted to run again for office, and Billie did. He came just 22 votes shy on Monday, losing to Marcellus Osceola Jr., 319-297.

In U.S. politics, Billie’s career would appear beyond resuscitation. But tribes clearly are different, and Billie knows this. He was ousted in 2001 after 22 years as chairman, on charges of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement (neither proven in court). Yet tribal members elected him in 2011, and again in 2015.

Did Billie get a bad deal this time? We don’t even really know the charges, let alone whether he was guilty or not. Indian differences apply here, too: Native America governing bodies, which is to say tribal councils, are not required to comply with the requirements of the due process and equal protection in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, provisions that both the federal and state governments must comply with.

(Congress did enact the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, which requires tribes to comply with some provisions of the Bill of Rights. But the problem is there is no remedy – that is, no recourse to a lawsuit in federal court –when a tribe violates the ICRA. So if a person in tribal office finds himself on the outs, there’s really not anything they can do about it.)

On the gambling side of things, whether it’s Billie or Osceola doesn’t mean much. The Seminole chairman leads a five-person council, which has appointed James Allen (and, indirectly, a very large staff of experienced and successful gambling people) to run their casinos. The Seminoles’ tugboat has grown into a battleship, and not much will knock it off course.

The tribe has been holding its breath since July 2015, when a five-year agreement with the state, for the exclusive rights to blackjack, expired. Since then, the Seminoles have planned a second hotel in Hollywood (but won’t start on it until a new state deal is done), filed a lawsuit against the state for allowing racetrack casinos to offer “designated player” games, and could see the Florida landscape go into chaos if a court allows a tiny operation in northwest Florida to offer slots, which would end their monopoly outside of South Florida and open all kinds of floodgates. There’s really not much one chairman can do that another can’t, because their next move is dependent on the courts, Governor Rick Scott, and the Florida Legislature.

But take a look at the micro. The tribe has almost 4,100 members, about half of whom are under age 18 and not eligible to vote.  But only 843 (just over 40 percent voted). So Billie – or Osceola – needed fewer than 15 percent of his constituents to back him in order to rule. You can play this election math game with whatever race you want, and if you want to drive yourself even nuttier, you can take it step further: If a candidate who lost by 22 votes had flipped only 12 people, he’d be the winner.

Were I a true political pundit, I would end this column with some language comparing the Seminoles’ situation to the upcoming national, state, and local elections. But I am not, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave any such conclusions as an exercise for the reader.

Twitter: @NickSortal