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HomeNewsLocal newsGov. Ron DeSantis Courts USVI Republicans Ahead of Feb. 8 Caucus

Gov. Ron DeSantis Courts USVI Republicans Ahead of Feb. 8 Caucus

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Virgin Islands Republicans on Oct.16, 2023, at a reception hosted by the Republican Party in the Virgin Islands.Photo courtesy of the Republican Party in the Virgin Islands
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Virgin Islands Republicans on Monday at a reception on St. Thomas hosted by the Republican Party in the Virgin Islands. (Photo courtesy Republican Party in the Virgin Islands)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis assured Virgin Islands Republicans Monday that he’ll be ready on day one to appoint conservative judges to the territory’s courts, and would support equal federal benefits for USVI residents, should he be elected president of the United States next November.

DeSantis spoke to a small gathering of party faithful during a 35-minute virtual appearance at a private fundraiser Monday afternoon on St. Thomas. He was the first presidential hopeful to pay the $20,000 fee to qualify for the USVI ballot and the first such candidate to address the people of the Virgin Islands since George H.W. Bush in 1988, said Gordon Ackley, chairman of the V.I. Republican Party.

The local party is hoping to leverage its political influence — the territory has nine delegates — by holding its caucus on Feb. 8, after Iowa and New Hampshire but well ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5, when the greatest number of states hold their primary elections and caucuses. It will also, for the first time, use ranked-choice voting to determine the winner in the GOP race. The candidate that wins over 50 percent will get all nine delegates.

“We might not be able to vote for president in a General Election, but our votes count equally in a primary and a caucus, because a delegate is a delegate, whether it’s a delegate from Iowa or a delegate from the Virgin Islands,” said Dennis Lennox, executive director of the V.I. Republican Party. “And the difference between Iowa and new Hampshire is, they award their delegates proportionately. So, depending on how the math works out, it’s entirely possible that the winner of the third-in-the-nation contest in the Virgin Islands actually gets more delegates than Iowa or New Hampshire,” he said.

Ackley is hopeful that the others who have so far qualified for the USVI ballot by paying the $20,000 fee — they include former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Sen. Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Perry Johnson — will see the value of courting the territory’s Republicans.

On Monday, Ackley sought DeSantis’s assurance that as president he would make appropriate judicial and other appointments in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“As president you get to appoint U.S. attorneys, U.S. Marshals, and federal judges that oversee the territories. These appointments are very important to us because this is the only check and balance we have against our Democrat-controlled Legislature and we need these checks and balances in place,” said Ackley.

Currently, the U.S. Virgin Islands is led by a Democratic delegate to Congress and a Democratic governor, with 11 of the 15 Senate seats held by Democrats, and zero by Republicans. Of 35,284 active registered voters in the USVI, just 1,107 are Republicans.

“I feel that if we had those checks and balances in place some of this negative publicity we’ve had through three governorships here through the [Jeffrey] Epstein fiasco might have been headed off earlier,” the chairman said, referring to the late disgraced financier whose primary residence was his private island estate off St. Thomas, where he carried out his sex-trafficking scheme and enjoyed a cozy relationship with top territory officials. “And even so, given the fact that all this has gone down, Ghislaine Maxwell is in jail, and our very own governor’s wife was actually the facilitator, and yet no one has gone after her, and as far as I’m concerned she should be occupying a cell with Ghislaine Maxwell,” he said, speaking of Epstein’s accomplice who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Florida.

“Furthermore, as you know, appointments to the Department of the Interior are very sensitive to us. All these positions, if you become president, can you commit to me that you will work with myself and the Republican Party here to fill these positions with good Republicans?” said Ackley.

“Of course,” said DeSantis. “I mean it’s malpractice not to fill all available positions as the president. When you don’t do that then the bureaucrats run the show and that means basically the Democrats are running the show,” he said.

“There were massive numbers of positions that were unfilled during Trump. … Probably within three or four months from now we will have a transition started where we already have thousands of people that want to serve in the administration. We’re going to be ready to go on Jan. 20, 2025, with thousands and thousands of potential appointments for the executive branch as well as the judicial branch, and I’m not going to leave any of these positions unfilled. It’s our chance to leave our imprint on the government, so you have to take it,” he said.

Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, Independent-St. Thomas, with RepublicanParty in the Virgin Islands Chairman Gordon Ackley at a reception with Florida Gov. and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis on Monday on St. Thomas. (Photo courtesy Republican Party in the Virgin Islands)
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, Independent-St. Thomas, with Republican Party in the Virgin Islands Chairman Gordon Ackley at a reception with Florida Gov. and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis on Monday on St. Thomas. (Photo courtesy Republican Party in the Virgin Islands)

St. Thomas Sen. Alma Francis-Heyliger, an independent and the only USVI senator invited to the gathering, asked DeSantis about territory rights, a perennial issue for residents who lack many of the same benefits as those on the mainland.

“We cannot vote for the president and residing here in the territory, it’s almost like you’re in a different class of citizen, even though we are citizens of America. What are your thoughts, if you become president, in regard to making sure that there is a lot more equality for Virgin Islanders here in the territory, as we are American citizens,” she said, naming for example the USVI’s exclusion from receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits.

“Well, how would the Virgin Islands vote for president — would they be red or blue?” asked DeSantis, to a ripple of laughter. “I don’t want to pony up free electoral votes for the other team.”

“Three of the five territories are Republicans,” said Ackley. “We need to flip the Virgin Islands.”

“Obviously I think that we have these territories, people are Americans, and they should be treated as equal citizens. How that works with the Electoral College, I’m not sure that there’s going to be necessarily a movement on that front, but I do think just generally speaking, the more equal the better,” said DeSantis.

St. Thomas attorney Leigh Goldman’s thoughts were on border security after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas, and its threats that the U.S. will be next, he said.

DeSantis, who said he spent Sunday night at the Tampa Bay airport welcoming home 271 Floridians from Israel after he issued an executive order to facilitate their evacuation, said he would not support U.S. residency for refugees from Gaza — they should go to neighboring Arab countries, he said — and that he would return illegal immigrants to their home countries, revoke the visas of anyone pro-Hamas, and crack down on legal immigration.

“I would just revoke the visas and send them home. I mean, this is ridiculous. When 911 happened, you didn’t have demonstrations praising the hijackers in America, even in very liberal areas you didn’t do it. Now, you’re having people out there praising Hamas, a brutal terrorist organization? You know, there is a sickness in our society that we have allowed to develop, and we just can’t allow it to go on,” said DeSantis.

“But I will also say this: As much as the open border has been a danger for this country by people coming in and may mean us harm, we’ve not handled legal immigration well in terms of vetting the people who are coming even legally,” the governor said. “If you are somebody that is sympathetic to the Hamas stuff, you can do that in your own country. Why would we want to import somebody in who has those inclinations? I just think that’s a big, big mistake, and I think it’s a mistake that’s been made for a number of years, and I think you see it in these college campuses where some of these students are signing pro-Hamas letters in the aftermath of the barbarity. It’s really, really bad.”

DeSantis blamed the situation on a lack of leadership in Washington, D.C.

“When this all happened, they didn’t even wake Biden up. He was sleeping. He didn’t take the 2 a.m. phone call. He was missing in action most of the time thereafter. They have not done anything to address the underlying cause of this, which is the funding of Iran, through a lot of oil revenue, relaxing of sanctions,” the governor said.

Second generation St. Thomas Realtor April Newland, whose family arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1957 to start a construction and real estate company, had a different kind of security in mind: energy independence.

“We had one of the largest oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere, which is currently closed, but we’re trying to open it up again,” she said, referring to the onetime Hovensa facility on St. Croix that has endured two bankruptcies and is now owned by Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation. “After 911, as you mentioned, the Air Force came and covered that refinery because they were very worried that someone would try to bomb that, so I would like to hear a little bit about your thoughts on energy independence,” said Newland.

“Well, we’re going to open up our domestic resources. We have incredible resources,” said DeSantis, listing several shale oil formations he would approve for mining. “We could be the dominant energy producing power in the world, bar none. Yes, independent from needing hostile regimes, of course, but it gives us an offensive capability to weaken our enemies, whether it’s Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela. Of course, it will lower prices for consumers, which they are in desperate need of that relief. It’s good for jobs, it’s good for our industrial base, but as a national security perspective, it’s a huge, huge boon for us to be dominant.

The Marcellus shale formation in New York, which extends throughout much of the Appalachian Basin, could produce enough natural gas that no one would need to buy gas in Europe from Russia ever again, said DeSantis.

“You know, Biden, he wants to force everyone to do an electric vehicle. The problem is, well, a lot of people don’t want those, but China makes most of the stuff that goes into the batteries because they mine those rare earth minerals,” the governor said. “We have an ability to do that in the United States, and what does Biden do? He says it’s off limits for mining. Why would we want to be more dependent on China? It just makes no sense. They’ll talk about global warming, but the reality is, China is adding two new coal plants every week. They have a lot of electric vehicles in China, and they are charged with power generated by coal. So, it’s not cleaner than the typical internal combustion engine when you consider that. So, I think it’s very important that we use our resources here. We’ve got a lot, and it will make us stronger as a country if we do.”

Asked by attorney John Matheson how he can overtake the apparent Trump wave to clinch the nomination, DeSantis said it’s a state-by-state fight.

“It’s not a national primary. We don’t all vote at the same time,” the governor said. As for Iowa, DeSantis said he has 80 of the 99 counties in that state, and is the only candidate other than Trump that is registering strong support. “We’re going to win Iowa, we’re way ahead of any other candidate who has ever won the caucuses in the past,” he said, adding that in stumping in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s found that 20 percent are with Trump, 35 percent are against Trump, and the remainder like Trump or are considering other candidates.

“He’s polling well amongst them now because obviously he’s been in the news with a lot of stuff that’s happened in the last six months,” he’s a known name, and during the summer people weren’t paying a lot of attention to the campaigns, said DeSantis.

However, the governor believes that most voters want somebody other than Trump, and his focus will be on gaining the support of the 35 percent who voted for Trump in the past, but now don’t think he should be the nominee going forward.

“Why should we vote for you?” asked Ackley, wrapping up the session with one final question.

“I’m the only veteran running for president. I’d be the first president elected since 1988 that’s actually served in a war overseas, I’m the father of a six-, five- and a three-year-old, so I understand the issues of education and what parents are going through, and I’m the only one running who has delivered on 100 percent of his promises,” said DeSantis, referring to his record as Florida governor. He also touched on his relative youth — he’s 45, where Trump is 77 and Biden 80 — and ability to bring energy to the job over an eight-year period.

Asked afterwards whether DeSantis had won her vote, Newland was still on the fence.

“I think DeSantis is really smart. I think his heart is in it. I haven’t completely made up my mind as of right now,” said Newland. “I want to hear everything that they have to say that is specific to here. I watch ABC, NBC, CBS, Newsmax, Fox, and oh my gosh. That’s why I wanted to bring it here, to us.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the V.I. Republican Party caucus will be held after Iowa and New Hampshire, not Iowa and South Carolina.

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