I-81 billboard repainted to criticize the attorney general rather than Gov. Pataki
By Michelle Breidenbach and Mike McAndrew
Eliot Spitzer’s campaign rented billboards in Buffalo that broadcast a positive theme: “Bring Some Passion Back to Albany.”
When the “Spitzer for Governor” bus tour headed from the state Democratic Convention in Buffalo to Syracuse this week, it rumbled toward a passionate sign the campaign can’t buy.
A green billboard facing Interstate 81 North says, “ONONDAGA NATION WHERE TRADTORS, RAPISTS AND MURDER’S RULE. PROTECTED BY WANNA BE GOV. ELLIOT SPITSER, ONON CTY SHERIFF, NYS POLICE.”
Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons said he does not know exactly who painted the sign, but noted, “I know they can’t spell.”
For nine years, the sign proclaimed the Onondaga Nation a place where “Gen. George Custer Pataki” protected traitors, rapists and murderers. Andrew Jones, an Onondaga Nation man who owns the land the billboard is on, said the sign changed from Gov. George Pataki’s name to Spitzer’s a few weeks ago, but he declined to say any more.
Spitzer’s bus traveled down I-81 only as far as the downtown Syracuse exit about five miles north of the sign.
“Free speech is free speech,” Spitzer said when he learned about the unflattering message. “It’s the nature of discourse. I suppose that isn’t what one would consider the highest form of political discourse. But I’m not going to get into a back and forth on issues like that.”
Andrew Jones is the son of Ronald Jones Sr., who was banned from the nation in 1985 during a dispute about bringing a bingo hall to the nation. Jones and his wife, Ruth, were accused of pointing guns at a clan mother. They were later allowed to return.
Ronald Jones died in 1999 from blunt force trauma to his head, according to an Onondaga County medical examiner. His body was discovered when authorities put out a fire intentionally set at his home on Route 11A. The sheriff’s department does not have a suspect in the homicide.
The family at the time suggested the chiefs were responsible for the death, but District Attorney William Fitzpatrick has said there was no evidence to support that claim.
Lyons said this week the nation should have knocked the billboard down years ago, but the council had more pressing issues to resolve.
“We’ll probably just have to cut it down,” he said.
Lyons said the billboard gives passing motorists unfamiliar with the Onondaga Nation a bad impression of the Onondaga people. On average, 35,000 motorists pass the sign every day, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The billboard was first painted in 1997, after violence erupted on the Onondaga territory over a cigarette and gas tax deal Pataki negotiated with Onondaga Nation chiefs and with traditional chiefs at other Indian territories in New York, said Joseph Heath, the Onondaga Nation’s lawyer.
Indians opposed to the deal gathered by the billboard and burned tires along the highway. About 100 state troopers in full riot gear moved in with batons while the protesters brandished hockey sticks. Police arrested 24 people, including Andrew Jones.
Violence broke out on Indian nations in other parts of the state as well, and Pataki squashed the commerce pact with the Haudenosaunee chiefs.
After that, the state Legislature passed a law that required the New York to collect taxes on Indian sales of cigarettes and gas to non-Indian people. Pataki’s tax department, however, has declined to collect the taxes.
Spitzer said this week he believes the laws of the state should be enforced, but he said he does not intend for that to sound like an ultimatum or a sudden shift in policy toward tax collections.
He criticized Pataki’s decision to back down on tax collection but declined to say what he would do to avoid a confrontation.
“You don’t let the prospect that some people might be upset or act in a way that isn’t appropriate deter what is legitimate law enforcement,” he said. “But again, I don’t want to speculate. I don’t want to start a cycle of speculation about what might or might not happen. We have a dialogue. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”
Spitzer met about three weeks ago with Lyons, Onondaga Tadadaho Sid Hill and representatives from the Cayugas, Tonawanda Band of Senecas, Tuscaroras and Mohawks. Onondaga leaders said they have met with Pataki only three or four times during his 12 years in office. The last face-to-face meeting was about three years ago, they said.
Lyons said he was impressed with Spitzer, but declined to say what the chiefs talked with him about.
As attorney general, Spitzer has worked both for and against Indian issues. Because he is the state’s top lawyer, he has defended Pataki in land claim lawsuits brought by Indian nations. His most recent argument – that the Indians waited too long to sue – was successful and gave the state its biggest advantage so far in negotiating the myriad issues tangled up in land claims.
Most recently, Spitzer defended lawsuits against Pataki’s decision to not enforce the law requiring the state to collect sales taxes on cigarettes and gas sold to non-Indians.