Choctaws Elect First New Chief In 30 Years

Jackson County residents will get their chance to vote on the idea of Indian gaming in their county, but another vote may have already made that controversial issue a "non issue."

For the first time in almost 30 years, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has elected a new chief. A final count released Wednesday night gives Beasley Denson 149 more votes than current chief Phillip Martin.

It was Martin who proposed building a casino off Highway 57 in Jackson County, But Denson is not as enthusiastic about the idea. Even though Denson hints the casino deal may be dead, opponents are not breathing a sigh of relief just yet.

Reverend Carl King and a group of pastors calling themselves Jackson County United for Families have been fighting the proposed $375 million casino development on moral grounds.

"We feel the values of the people who reside in Jackson County will be inappropriately affected by a casino in the county weather it's a Choctaw casino or a casino by any other agency," Rev. King said.

Tim Taranto and the organization Coast Business's For Fair Play are fighting the tax exempt, regulation exempt Choctaw development from an economic standpoint.

"It's a different set of rules for those guys and we're aware of that as well, and it changes the game for everyone," Taranto said.

Both are guardedly optimistic that the election of Beasley Denson as the new Choctaw Chief will mean a change of heart about putting a casino here.

"We've seen some rhetoric from him that states that he'd like the Choctaw people to be in charge of Choctaw property in Jackson County, as opposed to the folks in Jackson County making that decision or our Governor making that decision, and that's something that can be troubling for us," Taranto said.

"We're not going to be blind sided by the fact that we have a new chief. We need to make certain that that chief follows the words he's already expressed in his desire not to come here for a casino and have him withdraw that application with the Department of Interior," Rev. King said.

That's why Jackson County Supervisor Frank Leach says the non-binding referendum on the November ballot remains an important decision for citizens to make.

"I think the people need to make their statement one way or the other. We worked hard to accomplish that and here we are on the cusp of it," Leach said.

All three people we spoke with say they hope to see the Choctaw property off Highway 57 developed into most anything but a casino. And they look forward to discussing development with the new chief.