'Maverick' designation goes to under-40 Bush backers

The Grand Rapids Press/January 4, 2004
By Steven Harmon

If President Bush hopes to break the Democrats' presidential campaign winning streak in Michigan, he will have to rely on a corps of grassroots supporters that go beyond the big-hitters like the DeVos family.

The DeVoses, of Ada, have been go-to activists, with family members and the Amway Corp. giving Republican causes millions over the years, although that hasn't helped the GOP win Michigan since 1988, when Bush's father beat Michael Dukakis.

West Michigan activists Betsy DeVos, Peter Secchia and Glenn Steil also won special status in 2000 as so-called Pioneers after each raised $100,000 for the Bush/Cheney campaign.

As part of its attempt to amass a record-$200 million in donations to dominate the airwaves against Democrats in this year's presidential race, the Bush campaign has created a new status of contributor: the Mavericks, under-40 activists whose mission is to raise $50,000 by April.

They're the up-and-comers that Bush is tapping for this year's campaign while cultivating a movement that may go beyond his years in the White House.

One would-be Maverick, Grand Rapids resident John Yob, 27, got off to a good start with a $15,000 fund-raiser in October, with another planned for next month.

While perks are promised -- including a "special" event at the Republican convention in New York -- Yob said he isn't in it for a payoff.

Last year, Pioneers were invited to Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch for a private barbecue.

"It's not like you have chits and call them in with the Bush campaign," Yob said. "It's so you get credit for the work you do. It's something that shows you can help in a campaign."

Yob and a few other Grand Rapids-area GOP activists are taking the idea of the Bush Mavericks to form their own group of enterprising young Republicans with an eye toward 2008 and beyond. The group, by no coincidence, is called the Mavericks.

Yob got approval to use the name from the Bush/Cheney campaign.

"It's to energize the next generation of political leaders," Yob said. "Eventually, the next generation has to step up to the plate. I'm blessed with a lot of friends and I want to bring them into Republican politics, and George Bush is the unifying force for younger people."

Yob understands the game well. Reared at the knee of political activist Chuck Yob, the Michigan National Committeeman, the youngest of six children got an early start in politics. At 17, he said, he knew that he wanted to someday become a campaign manager for a presidential candidate.

In 1990, when then-Gov. James Blanchard visited Yob's high school, Forest Hills Central, Yob wore a T-shirt with John Engler bumper stickers plastered on it, catching Blanchard's eye. He handed out a number of similar T-shirts to other students who wore them in each class Blanchard visited.

"He asked John, 'What's your name?' He said 'John Yob' and Blanchard said, 'it figures,' " Chuck Yob recalled.

After attending the University of Michigan, where he is one course short of an economics/political science double major, he served as the national chairman of the College Republicans.

Previous politicos to catapult from the College Republicans to national prominence were Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, and Yob's hero, Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush who devised the infamous Willie Horton ad.

At 24, Yob was already running his own political consulting firm, Grand Rapids-based Independent Campaign Marketing.

"There's not a whole lot of young people with campaign managing experience," he said. "You've got to work for low pay, long hours, raise money and basically you can't be married."

Yob's status within the party moved up a notch after serving as Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land's chief consultant during her 2002 campaign, which garnered the most votes of all statewide candidates.

Yob helped write Land's campaign plan, designed the TV and radio ads, wrote the scripts and made sure it coordinated with the overall strategy. He came up with a motto that Land picked up on: "It's the customer that matters."

"It's hard for a candidate to get too many messages out, so you need to come out with one or two and that's what we did," said Yob, who also ran the successful House campaign of Rep. Glenn Steil Jr., R-Cascade Twp.

Yob would become the second Michigan Maverick if he reaches his goal of $50,000 by April. The other is 34-year old Tony Antone, a former aide to U.S. Energy Secretary and former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham.

Public interest groups have criticized the fund-raising scheme, saying donors have gained an inordinate amount of access to Bush, including government and appointments and ambassadorships.

"Bush's Pioneers - those who have raised at least $100,000 -- have benefited from new laws and regulations friendly to their industries and not in the public's interest," Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, said in a report, "Prospecting for Access: How the Bush Pioneers Shaped Public Policy."

Yob had his first fund-raising party -- headlined by Attorney General Mike Cox -- at his loft apartment at the converted American Seating Park on Grand Rapids' West Side. He's got Secchia committed to next month's fund-raiser to address the youthful crowd on their future as party activists.

"John seems to be everywhere," Secchia said. "Anybody else could have jumped out front, they probably thought about it, pondered it, discussed it. But John did it. That's how you become a leader. You have to jump on that white horse and lead people up the hill.

"He could be a comer -- he seems to have a good nose for what's going on."

Chris Beckering, the general manager of the Waterworks Pub in downtown Grand Rapids, said Yob is a logical go-to guy for a youthful political movement.

"He has the political smarts, and with John's political experience, we feel we can have a positive contribution to Grand Rapids, West Michigan and the country," Beckering said. "We're giving money, so we might as well get somebody the recognition."

Yob said the key to bringing in younger contributors is to make his events "cool." Instead of a sit-down chicken dinner or "stuffy Republican fund-raiser, we want it trendy, downtown, urban-oriented" replete with techno-mix music and a nightclub-like atmosphere.

"It's not how big a check you can write, it's how many checks you can get your friends to write," he said.

Or how many checks your well-connected dad can get people to write.

Just before Christmas, Chuck Yob e-mailed a letter to "grassroots Republicans" seeking contributions to the Bush/Cheney campaign. In the letter, Yob left out mention of the contributions being used by his son to gain Maverick status.

"If you would not mind attributing your contributions to this tracking number, 4792, I would really appreciate it," he wrote. "This will help me and others who are reaching out to their friends determine how successful our efforts have been."

In fact, the tracking number is John Yob's.

Chuck Yob said his supporters understand that he helps younger activists.

"I'd do that for any young Republican," Chuck Yob said. "I've always been above board."

The elder Yob's mailing list can do nothing but help the younger Yob reach his $50,000 goal by April 1. If he does, John Yob may get a meeting with Bush, who would likely greet him as "Little Yobster," a variation on the nickname the president uses for Chuck.

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