Dick Lay hopes to be a steadying influence during rocky but optimistic times for the Cherokee Nation. He is one of multiple candidates competing for the Nation’s highest office on June 1 – Principal Chief.
Lay is a sixth generation Cherokee citizen living in the old Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation.
He finished high school in the town of New Alluwe, Oklahoma, with a population size of less than 100 people.
“It’s a closed school now,” Lay said. “It has been consolidated like a lot of schools in Oklahoma.”
After high school Lay married his wife Phyllis and they settled into a life and routine of raising cattle as well as operating a small oil lease.
“I worked in the oil and gas industry during those years,” Lay said. His job was in the fields, doing non-destructive and destructive testing at power plants and refineries.
His first role serving the Cherokee Nation was as a delegate to the 1999 Constitutional Convention.
“I was a steadying influence during that convention,” Lay said. “There were a lot of political agendas and things going on that we had to work through. And we came up with the new Constitution, called the 99.”
Lay become a tribal councilor in 2011 and has helped lead the charge on major reforms by building coalitions.
Early on in his first term he helped form a coalition on health care with a nurse and a cancer survivor from the nation’s southern counties.
“I had lost my Cherokee grandfather and my mother. They both passed at an early age. So I knew how important it was to get upfront health care,” Lay said. “If you get preventative maintenance and can catch things quickly enough you can quite often knock these disease in the head.”
Through the coalition they built a new clinic south of Bartlesville and made major upgrades to clinics in Jay, Sallisaw, Stillwell, all financed by gaming proceeds.
Lay was also instrumental in adding teeth to the tribe’s TERO laws. The Tribal Employment Rights Office is a preference program within the nation that says Cherokee businesses and government should prioritize hiring and contracting Cherokees first, other Native American tribal members second and everyone else third.
The law on the books wasn’t tough enough, Lay said, “So I started another coalition and we discovered that our TERO law wasn’t quite up to speed. It hadn’t been modernized or upgraded in years. So we stiffened it.”
Although his service as a tribal councilor has run its course, Lay hopes to continue to be a leader within the nation.
The role of the Principal Chief is fundamentally about the universally recognized qualities of good leadership.
“My idea of leadership is what I’ve been doing for eight years,” Lay said. “Sitting down with councilmembers who come from a different location, whose needs may be different than mine, and deciding these important issues.”
This leadership means working with whoever wins the position of Deputy Chief.
“I’ve worked with both Meredith Frailey and Bryan Warner before. If I’m lucky enough to be elected, I can work well with either of them,” Lay said.
In short, Lay said, “Bill John has termed out, and it’s time for us to make a selection. For a long time I have noticed that our infrastructure in the Cherokee Nation is outdated. I believe I’ve made proven strides in that regard.”
There were several points on Lay’s platform. The most critically emphasized were health care, political infrastructure, TERO protections and senior assistance programs.
“I’m concerned about our healthcare system,” Lay said. “Not that we don’t run it well, but we’ve had problems paying doctors a high enough wage to stay.”
According to multiple reports, the Cherokee Nation lost 140 doctors over an eight-year span.
The issue, Lay said, is equally one of recruitment and retention.
“A lot of the doctors we get are kids right out of school, who come out owing about $200,000,” Lay said. Although the Cherokee Nation’s student loan payback program is great, other hospitals have started to adopt similar programs, making the nation’s less novel and effective, he said. Other doctors are often older physicians that are downscaling and retiring from their practices.
Lay said the nation needs to focus on its recruitment efforts, both in the medical schools and in the larger population.
“We’re still doing recruitment the same way we did it 20 or 30 years ago,” Lay said. “You can’t sit at the telephone waiting for a call anymore. We have to go out there and get them.”
As incentives Lay suggested higher pay, more schedule flexibility and asking each new doctor what matters to them when they think about staying in a job long term.
Lay also said he would like to re-hire former Cherokee Nation Health Services Director Charles Grim.
“We can’t continue to lose folks with this kind of experience and education,” Lay said. “I couldn’t run the health department if I was chief. Neither can Chuck as a lawyer. David is a schoolteacher, he can’t run it either. We could make a doctor the chief, but none of them applied for the job.”
“If I’m elected chief I’m going to do my best to go get Dr. Grim back and I’m going to do my best to surround myself with the smartest, brightest people in this field,” Lay said.
Second on Lay’s list is fixing the nation’s “outdated political infrastructure.”
“We have a series of laws that developed the programs we run like human services, housing, healthcare or TERO,” Lay said. “Our guidelines for these programs, which are not written by the council but by employees, sometimes drift away from what the initial intent of the law.”
“We need to stop and do a lot of infrastructure work. We need to get all our policy guidelines up to date,” Lay said.
Honoring and enforcing TERO laws in order to place Cherokee citizens as the heads of Cherokee businesses and end predatory contracts that harm the nation was also a big concern for Lay.
“One thing that has always been a bone of contention for myself and a lot of tribal members is that when we first started gaming we hired people who knew gaming – and they were non-Indian,” Lay said. “The idea was to eventually get our folks promoted and brought up to speed to take those jobs over. We haven’t done it. It’s been 12 years now.”
“If I’m elected chief I’m going to put Cherokee citizens in at the top of the tower,” Lay said.
In addition, he said, “We’ve got a lot of predatory contracts and wasteful co-counsel agreements. They are sitting there practically directing our businesses rather than the tribe directing our businesses.”
“I think we lose millions of dollars a year through these contracts, and if I win we are going to pull some audits on them,” he said.
Lay became acutely aware of the lack of senior assistance programs and policies over the last year as he and his wife have taken over the primary caregiver responsibility for Phyllis’s mother.
“Just because someone gets old and goes to assisted living or a nursing home, they don’t give up being Cherokee,” Lay said. “They are our elder and we are supposed to take care of them.”
Lay suggested copying and expanding upon Elder Care of Tahlequah as a model for how the Cherokee Nation could better serve it’s aging citizens.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, we should all get equal protection and services,” Lay said.
Although he spent less time on them, Lay also emphasized the importance of continuing and improving the nation’s home building project, cultural programs and communication and transparency with it’s citizens.
“For too long the Cherokee Nation has been the cash cow for special interests that do not have the best interest of the Cherokee people,” Lay said. “ We will end the practice of hiring those that have their own personal political agendas and we will restore our reputation nationally and at home.”