A Michigan political feud has boiled over in the Caribbean islands, where state operatives are enmeshed in a battle for Republican delegates who may decide the party’s presidential nominee.
The imbroglio in the U.S. Virgin Islands began when Grand Rapids native John Yob, his wife and the wife of a Yob business partner from Virginia won convention delegate seats at last month’s caucus elections. They aren’t committed to a particular GOP presidential candidate.
The surprise victories for three of the U.S. territory’s six at-large delegate seats are being challenged by Virgin Islands Republican Party Chairman John Canegata, the local elections supervisor and a losing delegate candidate. The Yob delegate trio took up residency late last year in the cluster of islands with white-sand beaches and 80-degree temperatures.
“That’s ultimately what we’re claiming — that they’re carpetbaggers, that they’re coming here not because they want to listen to Jimmy Buffett, but they want to be big-time players in a brokered convention,” said Ed Barry, an attorney representing St. Croix Republican activist Valerie Stiles.
The Caribbean controversy heightened when northern Michigan GOP political operative and Yob antagonist Dennis Lennox moved to the Virgin Islands. Over the weekend, Lennox was allegedly assaulted by a woman elected to Yob’s delegate slate during a party meeting at Canegata’s family-owned gun range, according to published reports.
Lennox was reportedly serving as the chairman’s parliamentarian and could be heard threatening to have the woman arrested while filming cellphone video of the raucous meeting.
Although Donald Trump is the front-runner, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are trying to prevent the New York businessman from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Cruz and Kasich are fighting for the allegiance of uncommitted delegates and nominal Trump supporters who might help make one of them the nominee on the second ballot at the July 18-21 Cleveland convention.The increasingly acrimonious conflict in the politically isolated territory centers on control of six of the islands’ nine national convention delegates at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Canegata has declared John Yob, Erica Yob and their friend Lindsey Eilon ineligible for the national convention. It prompted the territory’s Republican national committeeman and the disputed delegates to file a lawsuit last week against Canegata in a bid to get the Yobs and Eilon recognized as delegates.
Canegata is a self-described friend of Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chairman who is a paid Cruz staffer and a longtime adversary of Yob and his father, Chuck Yob. Lennox is an ally of Anuzis, who had a fundraising contract with the Virgin Islands GOP.
John Yob was the national political director for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign before the Kentuckian dropped out of the race. Yob has not since endorsed another GOP candidate.
But the political strategist, best known for organizing victories at GOP state conventions, published a book in February that makes a case for the Virgin Islands delegation to go to Cleveland as “free agents.”
“It would be a tremendous advantage to the Virgin Islands to elect a majority of its delegates as unaffiliated and give the territory significant relevance at the national convention,” Yob wrote in his book, “Chaos: The Outsider’s Guide to a Contested Republican National Convention 2016.”
Barry, who is a native of Greenville, Michigan, said Yob’s book is a “blueprint for becoming a kingmaker” at the convention.
“He came down here basically as a political mercenary for strategic reasons,” Barry said.
Implications for convention
The Caribbean kerfuffle may prove decisive in Cleveland.
If Yob wins, the six at-large delegates would be uncommitted at the convention. If the Virgin Islands GOP leader wins, his six alternates initially would have divided loyalties.
One alternate has pledged support to Trump, another to Cruz and two to Florida U.S. Sen. Mario Rubio, who has dropped out of the race. But the pledges are not binding, so the delegates could change their minds. The other two alternates are uncommitted. In either case, Canegata and two other party officials plan to attend as uncommitted representatives.
There is also the possibility that both Virgin Islands delegations could show up in Cleveland and seek voting recognition by the credentials committee, whose members include Kasich delegate Chuck Yob.
Anuzis and the Yobs most recently sparred in 2012 when John Yob orchestrated a state convention ouster of Anuzis from his Republican National Committee seat.
Until January, Anuzis’ political consulting firm, Coast to Coast Strategies, had a contract with the Virgin Islands Republican Party to get a 25 percent commission on fundraising for a political party awash in $350,000 debt, according to records obtained by The Detroit News.
Canegata said Anuzis’ fundraising work ended in January when Anuzis joined the paid presidential campaign staff of Cruz.
“This is not about Saul,” Canegata said in an interview. “This is about John Yob and the five other delegates who didn’t know how to follow the rules.”
But Yob attributes Canegata’s efforts to block him to the deal with Anuzis, who could not be reached for comment.
“I think this is mostly about the $350,000 debt that the Virgin Islands party ran up through their controversial fundraising agreement,” Yob told The News.
Lennox’s role questioned
The island intrigue intensified with the arrival of Lennox, a close ally of Anuzis.
Lennox initially told The Detroit News he was Canegata’s new executive director of the Virgin Islands Republican Party after weeks of pushing news stories about the Yob-Canegata battle to reporters. But the former Cheboygan County drain commissioner later backed away from the assertion after Canegata told The News he hardly knows Lennox.
“At this time, I don’t have a formal role with the party. There may be one coming later on in the future,” Lennox said Friday.
He sidestepped questions about whether he was in the Virgin Islands at Anuzis’ behest.
“I’m down here because John Yob said, ‘Hey, if you’re from Michigan and you want to move to paradise, come to the Virgin Islands,’ ” said Lennox, who last year led Cruz’s organizing efforts in Guam.
Yob’s effort to get seated as a delegate hinges on two lawsuits against the elections supervisor and Canegata.
Canegata has refused to recognize the delegate elections of the Yobs and Eilon, citing the elections supervisor’s contention they were not properly registered to vote 90 days prior to the March 10 caucus.
Yob’s attorney argued the 90-day waiting period applies only to government elected offices; national convention delegates are political party positions.
“There’s no law for waiting 90 days to register to vote,” said J. Russell B. Pate, a St. Thomas attorney representing Yob. “All of the plaintiffs are able to prove residency: They’ve been here, their kids are here, they’re living here.”
Yob said he and his wife bought a home on the island of St. John and enrolled their two children in school there in mid-November after five years of trying to relocate from Kent County.
A Virgin Islands judge initially agreed with John Yob, issuing a temporary restraining order against the elections supervisor and requiring her to recognize the residency for electoral purposes.
Virgin Islands Republican National Committeeman Holland Redfield II, a Yob ally, is using the temporary ruling to try to persuade a judge to compel the party chairman’s recognition of the Yobs and Eilon as delegates.
Canegata said the battle with Yob has given him a new perspective about politics on the mainland.
“I always thought Chicago politics was bad,” he said. “I never knew anything about Michigan politics.”