Michael Fairbanks rode a wave of support from across the reservation Tuesday to become the next chairman of the White Earth Nation.
In a special election, he defeated Brent Gish 1,352 votes to 679 votes, winning lopsided victories in all the big precincts from around the reservation: Fairbanks won 246 votes to 86 votes in White Earth Village. He won 194 votes to 89 votes in Naytahwaush. He won 94 to 15 in Pine Point. He won or tied every precinct except tiny Beaulieu, which went to Gish 8 votes to 6.
Gish did win the off-reservation absentee vote by 141 to 124, but Fairbanks did better with tribal members who voted absentee in person, winning 123 to 52. Fairbanks won the Minneapolis precinct 89 to 40 and the Cass Lake precinct 103 to 30.
He will fill out the unexpired term of Terry Tibbetts, who was elected to a four-year term in 2016 and died in March after an illness.
Gish, who couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night, was the top vote-getter in the crowded primary election in June, winning 523 votes, or 29 percent of the vote. With 15 candidates on that primary ballot, Fairbanks collected nearly 22 percent, or 391 votes, squeaking by former secretary-treasurer Tara Mason by seven votes to win second place.
In the general election, Gish was supported by White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Alan Roy, who endorsed him on social media as part of the Team Unity faction.
But Fairbanks said he expects to work well with the other four members of the Tribal Council anyway.
“I just want to get along with our existing council to find solutions,” he said. “Our council is making decisions that are not very appealing to our people. Alan (Roy) has kind of taken the chairman’s role. I’m going to have a lot of work to do to steer our council in the right direction.”
Fairbanks said council members need to remember they work for the people and not the other way around, and he thanked voters for their support, saying he will serve the reservation as a whole “and not just a part of it.”
He brings plenty of experience to the tribal chairman’s job: Fairbanks has worked in tribal administration in various capacities for the last 18 years, including deputy director of the White Earth Band.
Gish is a longtime educator, serving as a classroom teacher, a principal and a superintendent over nearly 50 years in education.
Fairbanks thanked him for running a clean campaign and said the two of them remain on good terms.
Fairbanks will be sworn into office Aug. 16 if no election challenge is filed.