Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of National Indian Gaming Association (Photo courtesy of National Indian Gaming Association)

Standing on His Record: Stevens Wins Sixth Term as NIGA Chair

Gale Courey Toensing
4/7/11

PHOENIX – A hot and smoky election campaign battle for chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association turned out to have very little fire after all.

After weeks of speculation, tension, rumors and uncertainty, Ernie Stevens Jr., NIGA’s incumbent chairman, won the election over challenger Ivan Mikal by a mega-super-majority vote of 121-14.

“I’m elated, I’m still overwhelmed, and I’m very honored to be able to continue to serve,” Stevens said after shaking hands and receiving hugs from the hundreds of well-wishers who queued up in a reception line after the election results were announced.

The election took place on Wednesday, April 6, at the NIGA’s Indian Gaming 2011 Tradeshow & Convention, which attracted an estimated 5,000 participants. In addition to the chairman’s race, Mark Fox, of Three Affiliated Tribes, was elected treasurer, and Bernadine Burnette, of Fort McDowell-Yavapai Nation, was elected secretary.

Stevens said he only began to feel comfortable late in the day of the election. “I didn’t feel any confidence at all until this afternoon, because Ivan is older than me, and I worked with him for many years so I knew I had to work hard,” Stevens said.

Makil is a respected former president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. He served three consecutive terms as leader of his nation and helped build his tribal government into a model for successful Indian businesses, diversified economic development and land use planning. He is the founding partner of Generation Seven Strategic Partners LLC, which provides a conduit between tribal governments and non-tribal entities with expertise in government affairs, business and economic development.

In his parting speech, Makil thanked the NIGA membership for providing him with the opportunity “to raise questions” and promised to stay engaged in the process.

Stevens, who has led NIGA for 10 years, now begins his sixth term as chair and spokesman of the country’s biggest Indian gaming organization. He is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. It was a tough election, Stevens conceded, or, at least, it appeared to be so.

“I’ve been a nervous wreck all through this. It was a tough campaign because there was some tough dialogue out there and a lot of it was analysis drawn that was critical of things I did. The criticism from Ivan himself was respectful and I don’t fault him for having his opinion but I disagree with him. I didn’t think it was fair but I let it motivate me. All I could do was stand on my record. That’s what my wife told me to do. That’s what tribal leaders told me to do and that’s what Sen. Campbell (former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado) told me to do. He told me I have to tell the people what I’ve done. I said that’s bragging, but he said no, that’s what you have to do, so I was thinking about almost every battle that’s taken place going back to the mid-1990s,” Stevens said.

Stevens said he had worked and re-worked his speech in the days leading up to the election. “The ironic thing was that all of the responses to the criticisms were already in my speech written days earlier,” Stevens said.

One of the criticisms that arose during the campaign was the claim that NIGA lacked transparency. “We work hard to be transparent and we’re good at it, but we’ll work harder at it,” Stevens said. “I’m accountable to the 140-150 voters who are my bosses.”  Others complained that NIGA took too long to reach a policy on Internet gaming, but Stevens said the organization followed the tribal leadership’s direction and studied the issue carefully before passing a nuanced resolution last October that insists on protection of Indian sovereignty in any proposed legislation. As for the more personal criticisms, Stevens said he preferred to let them go.

Reporters were banned from the large hall where hundreds of delegates gathered for the event. The election itself stretched over the entire afternoon and it seemed to remain a toss-up throughout that time. At one point, people emerged from the hall saying Mikal had just delivered a powerful speech. At another point, reports emerged that a straw vote had taken place showing Stevens ahead by 3-1. When the ballots were finally counted, it wasn’t so much of a surprise that Stevens had won, but many were astonished that he had won by such a large margin.

Stevens said he didn’t anticipate such a large gap. “So that was the real reward. I didn’t have to prove anything. The people proved it for me. The leadership proved that they believe in me, they trust that I work hard and my work was my campaign. I was thinking of retiring. I was thinking this was my last round, but you know what? With that kind of vote, maybe I’ll be around for a while,” Stevens said.

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