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SENECA TREASURER RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT

J. Conrad Seneca, a prominent businessman and treasurer of the Seneca Nation of Indians, is the first candidate to announce for the presidency of the nation in the Nov. 7 election.

But nation leaders are betting that there soon will be more candidates -- and that this may be the election that finally decides if the Senecas will open a high-stakes gambling casino off reservation land.

Leaders of all the Seneca political factions agree that a compact with New York State should be negotiated and put up for a referendum as mandated by the voters in May 1997.

Duane J. "Jim" Ray, who lives on the Allegany Reservation, now holds the office of president.

The Seneca Constitution stipulates that the presidency -- a two-year term -- must alternate between the two reservations, meaning that the next president must be a resident of the Cattaraugus Reservation, where Seneca lives.

It is Seneca's second attempt to lead the 7,000-member nation. And again he has split from his Seneca Party.

Seneca, 40, is running on the slate of a new party he has put together, the New Age Reform Party.

It also may be the second time he will be facing off with one of the nation's strongest political leaders -- Barry Snyder -- for the title of president.

Snyder, one of the wealthiest of the Seneca business people and one of the organizers of the now-ruling Seneca Party, easily defeated Seneca in 1992. The vote was 816 to 355.

Then, Seneca ran on the slate of the Independent Movement Party he formed after leaving the Seneca Party.

A third candidate, Emery L. Williams of the United People's Party, finished second with 687 votes.

"I think the Seneca Party has run its course," Seneca said, "and as far as I am concerned, the political lines are being redrawn. Now we truly have a struggle going on between the new and the old."

Snyder, who is 60, is expected to make his decision within the next several days.

As for the stalemate in casino compact negotiations with New York State, Seneca placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Ray, the current president.

"Here we are, only weeks away from another election," he said, "and more than two years have passed since the nation approved a referendum for the negotiations and there is still no compact to take to our people."

Seneca, who has been in the forefront of expanding the nation's bingo halls and introducing video pull machines, wonders whether a compact acceptable to the nation can be negotiated.

"But the first thing that must be done," he said, "is to get the compact. Then the people can vote on whether it is something good for the nation."

Snyder was blindsided by casino opponents in 1993 when he pushed for the start of compact negotiations with the state. But his supporters are confident Snyder would try again for a compact if he runs and is elected.

The Seneca Party has experienced bitter infighting -- especially over control of the casino negotiating team -- since it regained control of the government in 1998 with the election of Ray, and many of its members are looking for new leadership.

The People's Party, which is hoping to get back in the driver's seat, expects to name its slate in early October, according to Susan Abrams, one of the party leaders.

Abrams has led the faction opposed to the casino for the past 10 years and is not expected to back down.

She, too, thinks a compact should be brought back to the people she says will fight to have it defeated.

Seneca, who owns one of the larger smoke shops and gas stations on the Cattaraugus Reservation, served as an elected tribal councilor before he was elected treasurer of the nation in 1996.

He wants to keep the culture of his people but also wants to see economic development. "I think we need help in doing this from people who have the expertise to do this even if they are not Senecas," he said.

With that goal as one of his priorities, he would create "an economic development board made up of two Senecas and three non-Senecas."

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