After neither man topped 50 percent support in the primary election earlier this year, incumbent James Jennings and challenger Nelson Harjo Sr. are facing off for the Muscogee National Council Okmulgee District B seat in the sovereign nation’s Nov. 13 general election.
Jennings first served on the National Council from 2005 to 2011 and was re-elected in 2013. He has been on the Health, Education and Welfare Committee throughout his time on the council.
Harjo has been a long-time tribal employee but has not held a seat on the council. His son, Nelson Harjo Jr., works as the manager of the Muscogee Nation Election Board.
In the September primary, Harjo finished with 33.2 percent support (822 votes), and Jennings received 32.9 percent support (815 votes).
The Okmulgee District includes the towns of Beggs, Okmulgee and Henryetta. Each of the eight districts represented in the tribe’s National Council features an A and a B seat, which are up for grabs in alternating elections. Representatives serve four-year terms on the Muscogee National Council, and all eligible voters are able to vote in each council district race.
In-person voting on Election Day (Nov. 13) runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Early in-person voting on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 also runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Absentee ballots must be received by the Okmulgee post office by 11 a.m. on Nov. 13. For this election, the tribe has provided absentee voters with prepaid U.S. Postal Service priority express mail envelopes. (During the September primary, 57 percent of absentee ballots returned by voters were received after the 11 a.m. deadline. The National Council extended the general election date from Nov. 6 to Nov. 13.)
NonDoc reached out to both candidates. Harjo did not respond to text and voice mail messages. When reached by phone, Jennings said he was not doing interviews before abruptly hanging up. As a result, the following information was gathered from candidate interviews conducted by Mvskoke Media.
This year’s National Council elections mark the first election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed existence of the Muscogee Reservation in July 2020, a decision with ramifications that tribal leaders are working to implement.
Candidates talk tax refunds, environmental regulation
Both candidates have strong opinions on different aspects of the Supreme Court ruling and its aftermath. Jennings said the state of Oklahoma needs to butt out, and he believes tribal citizens living and working on the reservation have the right to be refunded the state incomes taxes they paid in the years before the decision.
“As far as the McGirt ruling, the attorney general and the governor, I think they need to leave what is alone,” Jennings told Mvskoke Media. “For the future, everyone has talked about taxes. I did file for an amended return for ’17, ’18 and ’19 and was denied. Along with McGirt is Indian child welfare. I think that is a big issue. This is my own opinion, but I think all of it needs to be handled in tribal courts.”
Harjo said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s controversial “midnight rider” in a 2005 highway bill limited the full impact of the McGirt ruling as it otherwise would have related to environmental regulation.
“We need to have our own ability to administrate those things,” Harjo told Mvskoke Media. “But when you look at what’s taken place with the McGirt case and how Inhofe put in all those midnight riders to stop things, that was really to preserve the state of Oklahoma as far as keeping their stuff intact. That’s the biggest thing we need to concentrate on is getting those things back in our playing field. I think we can, but that has restricted us in a lot of ways.”
Business development and election rules
Harjo also believes the future of his tribe will be determined by what direction it takes in coming months. He said he favors the tribe becoming more business-oriented rather than being a tribe focused primarily on providing social services. He also said he supports diversifying tribal businesses beyond casinos.
“We’re taking our tribe, and we’re removing ourselves from being a social service type tribe — which is what the federal government taught us to be — and we’re becoming more of a tribe where people are working and making their own livings and taking care of each other,” Harjo said. “The more that we grow into business and the more we create industry, the less we become a social service tribe.”
If re-elected, Jennings said he would continue to try and be accountable for what he does. He also said he avoids making promises to get re-elected.
“I’ve been on 13-and-a-half years, and I’ve missed one council meeting,” he said. “I feel like I’m dedicated, and I’ve become knowledgeable about what is happening with the nation.”
By his count, Jennings missed his second council meeting Nov. 4, which featured a veto override of election protocols and the rejection of a chief judge nomination from Principal Chief David Hill.
Jennings said he hopes to continue working on a proposal he has pushed before: changing how Muscogee citizens vote on National Council candidates. Currently, all registered voters can participate in each council race.
“I sponsored legislation a year ago August to do by-district voting again, and if I’m re-elected, I will try to bring that legislation forward to a vote of the people,” Jennings said, noting that it would require a constitutional amendment. “I think it’s equal representation. Currently, the larger districts can control who are in some of the less populated districts. Like the city of Okmulgee, they don’t vote for the mayor of Tulsa. I think the people should vote by districts for who represents them.”