The Seneca Party has dominated politics, government and jobs in the Seneca Indian Nation for most of two decades, getting nine consecutive presidents elected over the past 18 years.
In doing so, the Seneca Party has helped shaped the economic landscape of all of Western New York, as the nation owns three casinos, one of the biggest employers in the region.
Seneca Party leaders control not only the hiring and firing of Seneca Nation employees, but the thousands of workers at the casinos. And the wealthiest of Senecas, including many tobacco shop and gas station millionaires, lead the party.
J. Conrad “J.C.” Seneca, a former Tribal councilor and the son of a former Seneca Nation president, was one of them for many years.
But now he is on the outside, one of two presidential candidates attacking the Seneca Party and trying to drive it out of its long-held position of power.
“I know how the Seneca Party operates,” said Seneca, 57, who runs an upstart group, the One Nation Party. “I know how it has brought fear and corruption to the Seneca Nation. I know how it has used intimidation and fear to force people to vote for Seneca Party candidates. I want to take our nation in a 180-degree different direction.”
Sally Snow is the other presidential candidate challenging the Seneca Party. The 56-year-old businesswoman running as an independent hopes to become the tribe’s first woman president.
“It’s time for a change in our nation. We’ve had the same group of leaders, from the Seneca Party, running things for too long,” she said. “It all starts with how we treat our people. I look at the way things are run now, and I don’t like the lesson it teaches to our children.”
Todd Gates, 55, the current Nation treasurer, is the Seneca Party candidate for president. He and other Seneca Party leaders maintain that the party has provided solid leadership that has enabled the tribe to prosper over the past 18 years.
“Having previously served as a member of the Nation Council and as treasurer for the past two years, I know what needs to be done to help our Nation advance,” he said after being selected to run as president.
Seneca Nation officeholders are among the highest-paid elected officials in New York State. The nation president, according to Seneca Nation sources, makes about $200,000 a year, more than Buffalo’s mayor or the Erie County executive.
The Seneca Nation elections are Tuesday, and the results are of interest to many outside the nation.
While the election directly affects the 8,000 members of the Seneca Nation, the nation’s policies have much wider influence. The tribe operates three casinos and has more than 5,600 employees. The Seneca Nation says it is one of the five biggest employers in all of Western New York. And the Senecas have estimated that their businesses have an annual economic impact of $850 million in New York State.
The reasons for the Seneca Party’s election success are the “exceptional leadership” and the work done for the Seneca people, on the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations, said Scott Snyder, the Seneca Party chairman.
J.C. Seneca said other reasons explain that ballot success: vote-buying, intimidation and some dirty tricks.
Vote-buying is allowed by the Seneca Nation and is a long-honored but highly controversial practice.
As a Tribal Council member, J.C. Seneca said that he successfully proposed a law prohibiting vote-buying in the early 1990s, but he said the law was later overturned.
Both Snow and J.C. Seneca said they will not pay for votes this year. Seneca Party officials declined to comment on the issue.
Intimidation is another reason that J.C. Seneca and Snow claim the Seneca Party has been successful.
Hundreds of Senecas who work for the tribe and its casinos have been threatened that, if they don’t vote for the Seneca Party candidates, they will be fired, he said. Seneca Nation employees essentially serve at the pleasure of the president, with no Civil Service or seniority protection.
“The party literally goes around to employees at their workplaces and tells them that they will lose their jobs, or their sons or daughters or brothers or sisters will lose their jobs if they don’t vote for the party,” J.C. Seneca said. “After the elections, many people get fired. People vote for the Seneca Party candidates because they are afraid.”
Lawsuit over job
A recent incident involving Jack D. Sherlock Jr. of Salamanca, illustrates their claims about intimidation, J.C. Seneca and Snow say.
Sherlock, an unemployed Seneca had planned to run for Seneca Nation marshal, a law enforcement position, on the One Nation Party line. The 47-year-old Sherlock, who has worked construction jobs in the past, said he is badly in need of a job because he has two young children, including a 5-year-old son who is deaf.
But in a lawsuit filed last week in the Seneca Peacemakers Court, Sherlock explained how a Seneca Party leader tried to get him to drop out.
Donald John, a Seneca Party leader and a supervisor at the Seneca Nation Department of Public Works, called Sherlock several times in mid-October to discuss a job at the department, according to the court papers. Sherlock said the job paid just under $13 an hour.
And on Oct. 17, Sherlock said, John called him into his office and asked him to go for a ride. He said John told him he could have the public works job, but only if he agreed to withdraw as a candidate for marshal.
If he refused, Sherlock said, John told him that “he would be permanently blackballed” from Seneca Nation employment.
John also pulled out an affidavit he had prepared for Sherlock to sign, withdrawing from the race, Sherlock said.
Sherlock said he agreed to sign because he needed the job.
John then drove him to the Seneca Nation Clerk’s office just before midnight, so it could be filed before the deadline for such documents, he said.
The next day, Sherlock told J.C. Seneca why he removed himself from the marshal’s race.
“After talking to J.C., I decided to leave the job with DPW and file this lawsuit,” Sherlock said. “I decided to file it, not only for myself but other Senecas.”
Sherlock said J.C. Seneca assured him that, if he wins the presidency, Sherlock will get hired again in public works.
In an email to The Buffalo News, John did not confirm or deny Sherlock’s allegations about how he got his job with public works, or that he pressured Sherlock to leave the marshal’s race.
“I understand that J.C. Seneca would like to make a big issue out of this,” John said. “It must have been disconcerting to see someone who may have been pressured to run in the first place back out at the last minute. But, the decision was Mr. Sherlock’s, and his subsequent reconsideration of his reconsideration should be seen for what it is.”
Both J.C. Seneca and Sally Snow said they believe Sherlock.
“I don’t doubt it all. This kind of thing happens all the time in our nation,” Snow said. “I told Todd Gates this past week, ‘You know, Todd, that’s pretty dirty.’ He just smirked at me and didn’t say a thing about it.”
Gates, the Seneca Party candidate for president, did not respond to several calls from The News seeking his comment.
J.C. Seneca and one of his running mates, Tribal Council candidate Richard E. Nephew, accused Seneca Party leaders of engaging in other “dirty tricks.”
Although voters cast ballots in a private booth, Seneca Party “poll watchers” standing outside the booth have been able to tell whether individuals voted for Seneca Party candidates as a “straight ticket,” Nephew said.
“In the past, if the poll watchers did not hear one loud click on the voting machine, if they heard a number of softer clicks, they knew voters were picking individual candidates, rather than voting straight ticket for the Seneca Party,” said Nephew, a former high-ranking Seneca Party leader. “People have been brought in for questioning by the party if the poll watcher didn’t hear that one loud click. People have lost jobs over it.”
In this year’s election, voters will use a paper ballot, which will be fed into an optical scan machine, Nephew said.
“But if you are in the booth for more than just a few seconds, the poll watchers will know you are not voting a straight ticket.”
For that reason, J.C. Seneca said his party went to Peacemakers Court, asking that voters also be given the opportunity to vote “straight ticket” for the One Nation Party slate of candidates. The court ruled in the One Nation Party’s favor last week, but J.C. Seneca said he is worried about an appeal.
“The Seneca Party put out a false newsletter on Friday stating that the only straight ticket option will be the Seneca Party,” J.C. Seneca said.
Snow said she also has doubts about the election process.
“I’d like to say I have confidence in our nation running fair elections, but I can’t,” she said.
Seneca Party Chairman Scott Snyder called J.C. Seneca a “desperate candidate” and said the One Nation Party’s claims about the election process are a “baseless” and “shameless” attempt to “drag our election process into the mud.”