On election night 2006, Dick DeVos, the bronzed, starched 51-year-old scion of Michigan’s wealthiest family, paced to a lectern in the dim ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Lansing to deliver the speech that every candidate dreads.
The Michigan gubernatorial race that year had been a dogfight of personal attacks between DeVos, the Republican nominee, and Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Gloomy, bleached-out b-roll of shuttered factories in anti-Granholm ads made the governor’s sunny economic promise that “You’re gonna be blown away” sound less like an aspiration than a threat. Anti-DeVos ads cut closer to the bone, with one depicting a cartoon DeVos cheering a freighter hauling Michigan jobs to China. It was an unsubtle reference to DeVos’ time as president of Amway, the direct-sales behemoth his family co-founded and co-owns, when he eliminated jobs in Michigan while expanding dramatically in Asia. DeVos ended up personally spending $35 million on the race—the most expensive campaign in Michigan history—and when the votes came in, lost by a crushing 14 points.
At the Lansing Sheraton, the mood was grim. “If we aren’t going to be able to serve in this way, I look forward to the ways we can,” DeVos told his glum supporters. Behind him on the ballroom risers stood his family; closest to him was his wife, Betsy, choking back tears.
Though dressed in a blue skirt-suit, the uniform of a first ladyship that was not to be, Betsy DeVos was never a political accessory. Anyone who understood Michigan politics knew she had long been the more political animal of the pair. It was Betsy, not Dick, who had chaired the Michigan Republican Party; Betsy, who had served as a member of the Republican National Committee; Betsy, whose name was once floated to succeed Haley Barbour as head of the RNC; Betsy, who had directed a statewide ballot campaign to legalize public funding of religious schools; Betsy, who, as a college freshman, traveled to Ohio and Indiana to volunteer for Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign. She was a skilled and seasoned operator, but as her husband conceded in an overwhelming defeat, she was utterly helpless.
At the time, it seemed like a dead end for a neophyte political candidate. In reality, it was the opening of a new avenue the DeVoses followed to far greater political influence, reshaping Michigan politics and the national Republican scene. “I think that loss really solidified the idea in the DeVoses’ minds that the real way to get what you want is to be behind the scenes,” says Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.
In the decade since that loss, the DeVos family, with Dick and Betsy at the helm, has emerged as a political force without comparison in Michigan. Their politics are profoundly Christian and conservative—“God, America, Free Enterprise,” to borrow the subtitle of family patriarch Richard DeVos’ 1975 book, Believe!—and their vast resources (the family’s cumulative net worth is estimated at well over $5 billion) assure that they can steamroll their way to victory on issues ranging from education reform to workers’ rights. “At the federal level, when GOP candidates are looking for big donors to back them, they have options,” says Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “If you don’t get Sheldon Adelson, you can go to the Koch brothers, and so on. In Michigan, the DeVos family is a class of donor all by themselves.”
Thanks to the DeVoses, Michigan’s charter schools enjoy a virtually unregulated existence. Thanks to them, too, the center of the American automotive industry and birthplace of the modern labor movement is now a right-to-work state. They’ve funded campaigns to elect state legislators, established advocacy organizations to lobby them, buttressed their allies and primaried those they disagree with, spending at least $100 million on political campaigns and causes over the past 20 years. “The DeVos family has been far more successful not having the governor’s seat than if they had won it,” says Richard Czuba, the owner of the Glengariff Group, a bipartisan polling firm in Michigan. “They have, to some degree, created a shadow state party. And it’s been pretty darn effective.”
Buoyed by the success in Michigan, the DeVoses have exported a scaled-down version of that template into other states, funding an archipelago of local political action committees and advocacy organizations to ease the proliferation of charter schools in Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia and Louisiana, among others. At the same time, DeVos-backed PACs have transformed the nature of American political campaigns. By showing the success of independent PACs that answered to a few deep-pocketed donors rather than a broad number of stakeholders associated with a union or chamber of commerce, for instance, the DeVoses precipitated the monsoon of independent expenditures that has rained down upon politicians for the past decade. In the process, they’ve reshaped political campaigns as well as the policies that result from them.
Ten years after she watched her husband give a concession speech, Betsy DeVos was unveiled as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education. Across the country, public-school advocates and teachers’ unions expressed almost unanimous horror: One of the most effective advocates for breaking down the rules and protections for public schools and teachers would soon be the nation’s most powerful education policymaker.
But people who’ve been watching the DeVoses closely knew they were seeing something else as well: One of the nation’s most ambitious, disruptive and downright unusual political families finally had a seat in Washington.
To understand the DeVos family, it helps to understand West Michigan. A sweeping landscape of flat, rolling farmland freckled with small towns, it sits on the opposite side of the state—in more than one way—from the big, diverse, reliably Democratic Detroit metropolitan area. Broadly speaking, it’s a region where people are deeply religious, politically conservative, entrepreneurial and unfailingly polite—think Utah, if it were settled not by Mormons but by Dutch Calvinists. “There’s an old expression here,” chuckles Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. “‘If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.’”
The DeVos family is Dutch, thoroughly so. All four of Richard DeVos’ grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands, and today, the family continues to observe the tenets of the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. Calvinism believes that God has decided our souls’ fates before we are born, assigning them to heaven or hell. It is a duty of practitioners to show their faith in God’s plan by displaying self-confidence, as though they know they have been chosen for blessings in the afterlife. One way to display this confidence is through entrepreneurship (one of the bedrock texts of sociology, Max Weber’s 1905 Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is expressly about the link between Calvinism and economic success).
In this, Dick and Betsy DeVos’ familial roots serve as an object example. Dick is the eldest son of Richard DeVos, who co-founded Amway in 1959, and grew it from a meager soap factory into a multinational colossus with $9.5 billion in annual sales, enlisting his children to manage and expand the company. Betsy hails from a dynasty of her own. In 1965, her father, Edgar Prince, founded a small manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion on the strength of Prince’s automotive innovations, which include the pull-down sun visor with a built-in light-up vanity mirror.
When Betsy Prince and Dick DeVos married in 1979, it brought together two powerful Dutch families with perfectly compatible values. “There’s a close-knit atmosphere of the aristocracy of West Michigan,” Demas says. “It almost brings to mind the old monarchies of Europe where they would intermarry.”
There’s a close-knit atmosphere of the aristocracy of West Michigan,” Demas says. “It almost brings to mind the old monarchies of Europe where they would intermarry.”
Amway, the machine that built the DeVos fortune, is among the best-known multilevel-marketing companies in the world, relying on independent salespeople to start their own businesses selling Amway-produced goods and to recruit other independent salespeople to work underneath them. Over the past half-century, the company has attracted a healthy dose of criticism. In 1969, the Federal Trade Commission alleged that Amway was a pyramid scheme, launching a six-year investigation that failed to prove the charges. In 1982, the government of Canada filed criminal charges against the company, alleging that Amway had defrauded the country out of $28 million in customs duties and forged fake receipts to cover its tracks; in November 1983, Amway pled guilty to fraud and Canadian prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against Richard DeVos and other company executives. Amway’s direct-sales model—which it has exported to more than 100 countries—has become a ubiquitous part of the modern economy. (Among those who’ve experimented with the approach is the president-elect, whose Trump Network in 2009 used an Amway-esque sales pitch to recruit sellers of nutritional supplements, snack foods and skin-care products.)
In Western Michigan, what matters isn’t how Amway is run, but what the DeVoses have done for the community. Drive through downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest metropolis, and the family’s contributions are omnipresent. There’s the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. A few blocks west, hugging the Grand River that bisects the city, you’ll find the sleek DeVos Place Convention Center, the DeVos Performance Hall and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Across the water, the campus of Grand Valley State University is anchored by the spacious Richard M. DeVos Center. A few blocks north is the DeVos Learning Center, housed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. (You would be forgiven if you assumed that DeVos, not Ford, had been president.)
Today, the DeVoses’ charitable giving and local boosterism mean that people in West Michigan have a different view of them than Michiganders elsewhere in the state. “The political narrative that has grown around [the family] is unfair,” says Whitney, whose Hauenstein Center has received grant funding from the DeVos Family Foundation. “They have made life better for a lot of people, and I can’t say that loudly enough.”
The DeVos family’s charitable giving and political activism sprawls across three generations. It’s not just Dick and Betsy, but Richard and Helen’s other children, too. There’s Daniel DeVos, who chairs the Orlando Magic, an NBA franchise the family owns, and his wife, Pamella. There’s Doug DeVos, Amway’s current president and the chair of the executive committee of the National Constitution Center, and his wife, Maria. There’s Cheri DeVos, who sits on the board at Alticor, Amway’s parent company. And there’s their children, a generation of young adults ready to carry the baton.
Over time, the DeVos clan has evolved an unusual and highly structured internal governance system. Family patriarch Richard DeVos, now 90 and retired from an active role in Amway, explained the formal structure of this family government in his 2014 book, Simply Rich:
“We formed the DeVos Family Council, which is made up of our children and their spouses and meets four times a year. The Family Council just approved a family constitution that essentially captures our family mission and values. … The Family Council also articulates how the family will work together in managing our shared financial interests and our philanthropy.
“We also have the Family Assembly …. When grandchildren turn 16, they are inducted … in a formal ceremony that everyone attends. An aunt or uncle makes a presentation of their achievements, reminds them of their responsibility as they go forward, and affirms them as a member of the Family Assembly. … They are able to vote in the meetings at age 25, after they have met additional qualifications for taking on this added responsibility.”
This collective approach is how the family runs their home lives, too. The DeVoses’ myriad properties are managed through a single private company, RDV Corporation, which both manages the family’s investments and operates as a home office, paying the family’s employees, maintaining the DeVoses’ residences and assuring them as frictionless a life as possible. (The duties outlined by one recent property-manager job with RDV Corporation include “ensur[ing] doors are well-oiled to avoid squeaking” and that “broken toys [are] repaired or disposed of.”)
This family-government approach has so far enabled the DeVos family to avoid the public schisms and disagreements that have plagued other multigenerational dynasties. Any dissent is hashed out in private, and that enables the family to focus its collective efforts with the precision of a scalpel and the power of a chainsaw. If you’re a politician who wins the family’s support, you’ll receive several maxed-out checks from multiple family members, all in a bundle.
Across those efforts, one constant is the DeVos family’s devout Christian beliefs, and the indivisibility they see between Christian and Calvinistic notions and their conservative politics. “The real strength of America is its religious tradition,” Richard DeVos wrote in Believe!. “Too many people today are willing to act as if God had nothing whatsoever to do with it. … This country was built on a religious heritage, and we’d better get back to it. We had better start telling people that faith in God is the real strength of America!” In the mid-1970s, DeVos made major donations to the Christian Freedom Foundation and Third Century Publishers, an outlet that printed books and pamphlets designed to strengthen the ties between Christianity and free-market conservatism; among those products was a guidebook instructing conservative Christians how to win elections and help America become “as it was when first founded—a ‘Christian Republic.’”
Though they aren’t quite as large or wealthy as the DeVoses, the Prince family—even further west, in Holland, Michigan—shares one big trait in common with their in-laws: the idea that patriotism and politics are inseparable from Christianity. Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, Betsy’s mother, donated $75,000 to the successful 2004 ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage in Michigan; four years later, she gave $450,000 to an identical initiative in California. Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater, the military contractor that gained notoriety in 2007, when its employees fired into a crowd of Iraqi civilians, killing 17. (In 2009, two former Blackwater employees alleged in federal court that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader.”)
Throughout his adult life, Betsy’s father, Ed, donated handsomely to two religious colleges in Michigan, Hope and Calvin, the latter being his wife’s beloved alma mater in Grand Rapids. But his most important contribution—one that has shaped much of the past three decades of conservative politics—came in 1988, when Prince donated millions in seed funding to launch the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian group that became one of the most potent political forces on the religious right. “Ed Prince was not an empire builder,” Family Research Council President Gary Bauer wrote to supporters after Prince’s sudden death in 1995. “He was a Kingdom builder.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, Ed and Elsa Prince advanced God’s Kingdom from the end of a cul-de-sac just a few miles from Lake Michigan. There, they taught their four children—Elisabeth (Betsy), Eileen, Emilie and Erik—a deeply religious, conservative, free-market view of the world, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and sending them to private schools that would reinforce the values they celebrated at home, small-government conservatism chief among them.
Ed Prince was not an empire builder,” Family Research Council President Gary Bauer wrote after Prince’s death in 1995. “He was a Kingdom builder.”
In a breakfast speech to volunteers at Holland Christian Schools on May 12, 1975, Ed Prince warned that lazy and neglectful U.S. citizens were not doing their fair share, forcing the government to, as a Holland Sentinel article described it, “play an increasingly larger role in our daily and personal lives.” (You don’t have to listen too hard to hear an echo of Ed Prince in his daughter, Betsy. “[For welfare recipients] to sit and be handed money from the government because they think a job like that is beneath them,” the heiress sighed to the Detroit Free Press in 1992. “If I had to work on a line in a factory, I would do that before I would stand in line for a welfare check.”)
From an early age, Betsy was pushed to compete. In 1965, she was one of two second-graders to make entries in Holland’s annual tulip festival (a citywide valentine to the area’s Dutch heritage). In middle school, she entered a poster and essay contest about crime prevention. In her teenage years, she was a member of the Holland City Recreation Swim Team. Betsy excelled at the breaststroke. In August 1972, she won the Mid-Michigan Conference Championship, a contest in which younger siblings Emilie and Eileen Prince placed third and fifth, respectively).
After graduating from high school in 1975, Betsy enrolled at Calvin College, her mother’s alma mater. Calvin’s mission, as stated in the 1975–1976 course catalog, was “to prepare students to live productive lives of faith to the glory of God in contemporary society—not merely lives that have a place for religion … but lives which in every part, in every manifestation, in their very essence, are Christian.”
On campus, Betsy became politically active, volunteering for the presidential campaign of hometown hero President Gerald Ford, who was facing off against movie star-cum-California Governor Ronald Reagan. She joined a pro-Ford group called “Friends of the First Family,” and along with her compatriots, took trips to Indiana and Ohio to participate in the Ford campaign’s “scatter blitzes.”
Betsy’s campaigning earned the attention of the Ford team, which tapped her to attend that year’s Republican National Convention in Kansas City as a participant in the “Presidentials” program for young Republicans. The budding politicos attended training on campaign strategy and political techniques, and were divided into groups based on geography so that they could get acquainted with potential allies from their home states. There were also more practical desires for a squadron of young volunteers at a contested convention: “Anywhere there needed to be noise, there were always kids,” Betsy Prince told a reporter for the Holland Sentinel in 1976 (“Betsy Helps Cheer Ford Through in Kansas City,” read the headline, beside a photo of a T-shirt-clad Betsy sporting a feathered, Farrah Fawcett-lite hairdo).
Around this time, Betsy Prince met the two men with whom she would form the most important political relationships of her adult life. One became her husband; the other became her governor.
If there’s one law of physics that defined how Michigan politics moved in the 1990s, it’s that Governor John Engler was a master of the state Legislature. His political acumen—honed over a 20-year run in the Legislature, during which the 22-year-old boy wonder grew into his sturdy tree-stump physique and Ben Franklin hairline—was legendary even before he won a stunning upset in the 1990 governor’s race.
Never was that mastery more evident than on July 19, 1993, a date that set into motion every battle over education the state has seen since—a day that led to Betsy DeVos becoming Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education.
Deep into his first term, Engler wanted to show progress in his signature proposal to reduce the state’s onerous property taxes by 20 percent. Property taxes being the funding source for Michigan’s public school system, Democrats ruled out any plan that did not include a replacement for the lost revenue, and since any new revenue would require legislators to vote for new taxes or fees, that option had little appeal heading into the 1994 campaign. On July 19, 1993, Democratic state Senator Debbie Stabenow proposed an amendment that was interpreted as an attempt to point out the absurdity of Engler’s plan: Why not cut them by 100 percent without having any replacement revenue source?
Democrats were dumbstruck by what happened next: Engler whipped the state Legislature into action, and in the course of a 24-hour period, the Senate and House eradicated property taxes—in the process completely defunding Michigan’s $6.5 billion public-education system. In the ensuing crisis, Engler legalized charter schools.
By that point, Betsy DeVos was already a major Engler backer—she had served as the GOP chair in powerful Kent County, and in 1992, won one of the state’s seats on the RNC, ousting Ronna Romney (sister-in-law of Mitt Romney and mother of Ronna Romney McDaniel, whom Trump has chosen to helm the RNC). But education reform had long been a passion, and now she had an opportunity to help the governor who was enacting the changes she so badly wanted.
In May 1996, the chair of the Michigan Republican Party stepped down to run for Congress. John Engler had just the person for the job. Betsy DeVos accepted, and the following year, decided to run for a full term as party chair.
If Engler thought he had anointed a rubber stamp, he quickly learned otherwise. In January 1997, DeVos cleared house, unilaterally firing all of the party’s top directors and pausing all contracts with vendors, blaming them for the party’s losses months earlier. “Betsy regarded the governor’s input as good advice, not an order,” Greg McNeilly, a close associate of Betsy DeVos, told an Engler biographer years later. “That’s when the problems started.”
After an enormously successful 1998 campaign wherein Engler won a third and final term in a landslide, the governor encouraged Betsy DeVos to run for chair of the RNC. DeVos had a different battle in mind: a statewide campaign to legalize school vouchers.
The Michigan state constitution expressly forbids public funds from being used to pay for private, religious schools. Betsy DeVos aimed to change that via a constitutional amendment—Proposal 1 on the November 2000 ballots.
Engler was opposed to the idea—the timing was off. “I was pretty certain that it was premature to go to the ballot in 2000,” Engler says, “because if you’re going to go to the ballot, you want to win.” The DeVoses had counted on his support, and when it didn’t materialize, things soured. (“[John Engler] would have a hard time being a first mate even on the largest ship in the world,” Betsy DeVos later wrote. “I think he’d sooner be captain of a smaller boat than the first mate on a much bigger ship.”)
DeVos quickly realized that the situation was unsustainable. So she hatched a plan designed to surprise Engler just as his opposition had surprised her: She would resign as state GOP chair without notifying him in advance. She chose a date in February 2000 when she knew Engler would be in Washington. Around 9 a.m., she left a message on his phone, informing him that she would announce her resignation at an early-afternoon news conference. Engler quickly changed his itinerary and booked a flight home for his own news conference that evening. Publicly, Engler saved face, but the message from the DeVoses was unmistakable: We are a political force with our own agenda, like it or not.
The message from the DeVoses was unmistakable: We are a political force with our own agenda, like it or not.
Now, however, the DeVoses were on their own, pushing Prop 1 with minimal support from the state’s Republican establishment. Among the broader public, the opposition was fierce and widespread. “That was one of the best campaigns I was ever on,” says Julie Matuzak, who was, at the time, the American Federation of Teachers’ top political hand in the state.
While the DeVoses campaigned on expanding educational choices for parents and students, their opponents reframed the issue. “When you really looked at it, the parents weren’t the ones with the choices; the parochial schools were the ones with the choices,” Matuzak remembers. “If all you do is transfer the money, you don’t transfer any of the other requirements that are put on public schools. Public schools are required to take everyone who comes through the door. But private schools, parochial schools, get to pick and choose. … It’s not really the parents who have the choice, it’s the schools. And people ultimately understood that.”
When Election Day came, the result was overwhelming: Proposal 1 failed with 69 percent of voters opposed. Across the spectrum, political observers viewed the initiative as a debacle that drove up Democratic turnout and likely cost Republicans a U.S. Senate seat, as Debbie Stabenow defeated incumbent Senator Spencer Abraham by 67,000 votes.
There was a silver lining for the DeVoses, albeit one not immediately apparent. They had established a purity test for fellow Republicans: Had they supported Prop 1? And in unintentionally contributing to Senator Abraham’s loss, they had created a scenario in which, once Engler was term-limited in January 2003, the state GOP would be without any marquee statewide officeholders. No governor. Neither U.S. senator. An attorney general and secretary of state without any previous statewide experience.
There was a power vacuum in the Republican Party, and the DeVoses were the only ones who could fill it. Which they did, with lots and lots of money.
When Dick and Betsy DeVos are asked why they’ve chosen to mount a personal crusade for education reform, they often cite their family’s charitable giving, which puts them into contact with scholarship applicants. For years, the DeVoses read reams of personal essays filled with wrenching stories of dire finances and an abiding hope in the transformative impact of education. Those stories, the DeVoses have said, made it clear that something had to change.
But there’s another reason why Dick and Betsy DeVos want to change America’s schools. They see it as the literal battleground for making a more Christian, God-centered society.
In 2001, Betsy DeVos spoke at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting of some of America’s wealthiest Christians. There, she told her fellow believers about the animating force behind her education-reform campaigning, referencing the biblical battlefield where the Israelites fought the Philistines: “It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture—to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country.”
Dick DeVos, on stage with his wife, echoed her sentiments with a lament of his own. “The church—which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school,” Dick DeVos said. “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church and school and family much more tightly focused and built on a consistent worldview.”
For the DeVoses, an electoral loss—even an embarrassing one—is but a small skirmish on that Shephelah. Prop 1’s failure was evidence that they needed to redraw their battle plans for a much larger war.
Betsy DeVos stressed that Christians need to focus on “greater Kingdom gain” by “changing … the system of education in the country.
Dick DeVos echoed that: As the center of the community, “The church … has been displaced by the public school.”
They unveiled the new strategy in 2001, the same year they spoke at The Gathering: Instead of direct appeals to voters, the DeVoses would devote their resources to PACs and nonprofit organizations to push legislators to enact the changes they desired. Thus, the Great Lakes Education Project, or GLEP, was founded.
Initially, few in Michigan knew quite what to make of GLEP. At the time, most PACs were affiliated with membership organizations, like a labor union or chamber of commerce, and focused on issues important to those members. GLEP wasn’t anything like that. It was a largely family-funded effort with a singular focus on education reform; a multipronged structure gave GLEP great latitude to advocate, from lobbying legislators to purchasing attack ads on TV.
In the years since the DeVoses debuted GLEP, we’ve witnessed the nationwide rise of single-issue PACs funded by a small number of extraordinarily wealthy donors, especially since the Citizens United ruling uncorked the dam of corporate money. “The [DeVos] family has been forward-thinking in their use of money to influence politics,” says Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “And what’s happening with them in Michigan seems to be an example of where we’re going as a country with the concentration of power in our politics.”
In 2002, the first election of GLEP’s existence, its PAC had more money than the Michigan Education Association, United Auto Workers, or any Democratic-affiliated PAC in the state. And if they lacked the influence and statewide presence of those groups, it was only a matter of time. “They take a very long-term view,” says Matuzak. “If you pick up a few new Republican legislators every two years, and throw a fair amount of money at legislators who are already there, you can create coalitions of folks who can tackle what seem to be impossibly large issues.”
It was the lesson of John Engler’s governorship: If you want to get things done, control the state Legislature. But you can’t get that without inspiring some degree of fear.
One Republican who caught the DeVos family’s ire was Paul Muxlow, a realtor and former educator elected to the state house in 2010, representing a mostly rural district in southeast Michigan. Muxlow was a dependable conservative, but disliked the idea of eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools. While he was fine with charter schools in underserved communities, he said he couldn’t support them in rural areas—“It would kill those districts,” he explained to the Detroit Free Press in 2014. When the cap elimination came before the state Legislature in 2011, it passed with Muxlow voting against it. The following year, when he ran for reelection, he faced a blitz of attacks from GLEP, which didn’t even need his district, but spent just under $185,000 to take him out in the primary. Muxlow won by just 132 votes.
Privately, many Michigan Republicans are afraid of getting on the DeVoses’ bad side. “At the American Federation of Teachers, there were always Republicans we’d endorse,” recalls Matuzak, who retired from the union in 2014. “And it got to the point where … the Republicans would say, ‘Please don’t endorse me because it will hurt me with the DeVoses.’ They’d send back money because the DeVoses would punish them.” (In an email to POLITICO, the chief of staff to one Republican state senator declined comment for this story, saying it would “not be productive” before linking to two anti-DeVos columns in the Detroit Free Press. The articles “speak for themselves,” he wrote.)
“The Republicans would say, ‘Please don’t endorse me because it will hurt me with the DeVoses.’ They’d send back money because the DeVoses would punish them.”
“There’s a general awareness if they’re not supporting you,” says John Truscott, a longtime Republican operative in Michigan and the president of Truscott-Rossman, a powerhouse bipartisan PR firm that represents the DeVos family on certain matters. “If you’re always getting along with everybody, you’re probably not making a difference.”
Year by year, cycle by cycle, the DeVoses built a state Legislature in their own image. By the time Democrat Jennifer Granholm was term-limited in 2010 and Republican Rick Snyder was elected governor without any political experience, it was the DeVoses, not Snyder, who knew how to get things done. Unlike the Engler years, this time, they had more sway than the governor.
Today, 16 years after the DeVoses’ failed constitutional amendment, this constant push has totally remade Michigan education. The cap on the number of charter schools eliminated and attempts to provide public oversight have been defeated, making Michigan’s charters among the most-plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. About 80 percent of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state. This means that taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go to traditional public schools are instead used to buy supplies such as textbooks and desks that become private property. It is, essentially, a giant experiment in what happens when you shift resources away from public schools.
And while a state constitutional amendment legalizing public funding for religious schools is unlikely to win public support anytime soon, charters have had much the same impact. While a charter school cannot be religiously affiliated, many walk a fine line, appointing, for instance, a preacher as head of the school board or renting school space from a church. “They have a couple ways of getting around it,” says Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University who specializes in charter school evaluation and research. “I’ve been in charter schools where I’ve seen religious prayers to Jesus Christ—they mention Christ by name—and prayer circles with students, teachers and parents.”
For students, the results of the Michigan charter boom have been mixed. Most charters perform below the state’s averages on tests, even while their enrollment has grown to include more than 110,000 students, nearly half of whom live in the Detroit area. A 2013 Stanford study that compared Detroit’s charters with its traditional public schools found that the charter students gained the equivalent of more than three months’ learning per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools. But that doesn’t mean they’re performing at a high level, simply that by some measures, certain charters marginally outperform the historically challenged Detroit public schools.
Whatever the quality outcome, the political lesson isn’t lost. The DeVoses have transplanted their organizational model to other states—New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin, among them. They have done this by marshaling forces under the umbrella of their American Federation for Children, a nationwide campaign for school reform that has attracted high-profile speakers to its conferences, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former D.C. school czar Michelle Rhee.
In the transformation of Michigan from a blue-collar Rust Belt Democratic stronghold to a free-market, Republican conquest, no issue may be more symbolic than the enactment of right-to-work legislation.
On its face, the debate over right-to-work is about an arcane bit of labor law—whether workers under a contract that was collectively negotiated by a union should have to pay dues to that union, regardless of whether they’re members. But that debate is a proxy for a larger battle that is less about employment law than political jockeying: Unions tends to align with Democrats, and as a result, if it becomes more difficult for unions to collect dues, they’ll be weakened and less able to advocate for the political causes of their choosing.
Days after the 2012 election, Dick DeVos picked up the phone and rallied Republican lawmakers to pass right-to-work in lame duck while they still had the votes, reportedly promising financial support to those members who would find themselves facing tough reelections and suggesting he would back primary campaigns against those who didn’t step in line. “There’s one family who gets these people elected, and consequently, you can assume they can get them unelected, too,” says Gretchen Whitmer, who was the state Senate’s Democratic leader at the time.
“There’s one family who gets these people elected, and consequently, you can assume they can get them unelected, too,” says Gretchen Whitmer, the former Democratic leader of the state senate.
To opponents, right to work ran counter to every story Michigan told itself about who it was, a repudiation of generations of hard-won gains. In metro Detroit, labor’s historic triumphs are retold like folklore by men with thick, calloused hands, lest future generations forget the Battle of the Overpass or the Flint Sit-Down Strike. Right-to-work, labor feared, would undo much of that.
Though anxious, labor officials had reason to feel confident. On November 26, 2012, the Monday after Thanksgiving, Republican Governor Rick Snyder had reassured them that right-to-work was “not on my agenda.” “The impression we had from the beginning was the governor wanted to keep this thing off his desk,” Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, said at the time.
Over the course of a few days in late November and early December, everything changed. Perhaps it had something to do with the $1.8 million blitz of TV and radio ads promoting right-to-work the DeVoses bankrolled.
On December 6, eight days after Snyder met with labor leaders, the governor flipped on the issue, announcing his intent to sign right-to-work into law. “The day it became apparent, he wasn’t returning phone calls from any of us,” remembers Whitmer.
The next five days saw large protests on the Capitol grounds, culminating with an estimated 12,500 demonstrators on December 11, the day the House voted on the legislation. Two-thousand demonstrators flooded into the Capitol, sitting in the hallways and laying down in the rotunda. They stomped their feet, chanted familiar slogans, sang “Solidarity Forever”—a cacophony that some in the House chamber one story up initially confused for thunder.
Right-to-work passed by a handful of votes, including an Engler-esque flourish: The legislation was amended to include a small appropriation, which meant that once signed, it would be impossible for voters to repeal by public referendum.
Outside the Capitol, state police donned riot gear while officers on horseback pushed protesters away from the building. Loudspeakers blared Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and as the wind picked up, four 20-foot-tall inflatable rat balloons skittered from side to side. Each rat represented one of the key players protesters blamed for right-to-work’s hasty adoption: the governor, the House speaker, the Senate majority leader, and—the only unelected member of the rat pack—Dick DeVos.
It isn’t known what, if anything, the DeVoses said to Governor Snyder to change his mind and detonate this atomic bomb in Michigan politics. But Snyder would’ve been under no illusions about the possible consequences of inaction. “There was all kinds of scuttlebutt that if Snyder didn’t sign up for right-to-work in 2012, he would’ve bought himself a primary in 2014,” says Demas of Inside Michigan Politics. “I think Snyder understands the powerful place the DeVoses have in Michigan, and that it’s often more trouble than it’s worth to tangle with them.”
In the weeks since Donald Trump announced that he would nominate DeVos for secretary of education, Michigan’s political circles have been abuzz. As ever, the DeVoses are loved and hated, with little in between. “She is a strong supporter of public education and of quality education for every child,” says Engler. “It’s horrifying. It’s a slap in the face,” says Whitmer. “The only people who have anything to worry about are those running failing schools,” says Truscott. “It is as if you were to appoint some radical pacifist as secretary of defense,” says Jack Lessenberry, a senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
After years operating behind the scenes, Betsy DeVos is set to become the public face of education policy in America—an advocate of private Christian education helming the largest public-education agency in the country. Most education policymaking happens at the state and local level; the Education Department administers financial aid and collects and analyzes educational data, but doesn’t set state standards or school curricula. Even so, the position is a considerable bully pulpit, one with the ability to define the national discussion on education.
As secretary, it’s likely DeVos will pursue a national expansion of school choice and charters. In this, DeVos has an ally in President-elect Trump. “There’s no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” Trump said in a September 8 speech. “It is time to break up that monopoly.” In that speech, Trump proposed a $20-billion block grant program to fund national vouchers administered at the state level. “Parents will be able to send their kids to the desired public, private or religious school of their choice,” Trump said.
It’s what Betsy DeVos has wanted all along.
Barring a surprise at confirmation hearings, the DeVos family will soon have a seat in Washington. But a question lingers: Will they continue as activists? While there’s a long history of Cabinet members donating to campaigns prior to assuming their roles atop the government, it would be fairly unprecedented for a Cabinet secretary to push policy within the government while her family simultaneously funnels millions to lobby and campaign for those same policies. But the DeVos family isn’t shy about using its clout.
Some donors couch their push for influence in the anodyne language of “improvement” and “empowerment.” Betsy DeVos is more upfront. “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party,” she wrote in a 1997 editorial for Roll Call. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
““I have decided … to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” Betsy DeVos wrote in a 1997 editorial for Roll Call. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
It’s one thing to be an advocate and quite another to be a policymaker in a realm where you have little professional training or personal experience—a charge that DeVos’ opponents are quick to lob. If confirmed by the Senate, DeVos would be the first secretary of education in at least 30 years without any experience as a government official, school administrator or teacher. “She’s not someone with an education background—she never went to a public school, never sent a child to a public school,” says Whitmer, who recently announced her candidacy for Michigan governor. “It’s just stunning that they’d want to export the ugliness [the DeVoses] have brought to the education debate in Michigan and send it to the rest of the nation.”
Even so, among the DeVoses’ skeptics, there are those who strike a hopeful, if cautious, tone. “I think Mrs. DeVos could potentially be a really good secretary of education if she allowed parents and school districts to make policy at the local level,” says Daniel Quinn, executive director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a nonprofit that receives a portion of its funding from the National Education Association. “But at the same time, I’m concerned.”
Julie Matuzak, the DeVoses’ foe from the 2000 voucher fight, disagrees strongly with DeVos’ appointment but concedes the couple has good intentions. “I do believe they have a deep-seated belief in quality education for all children,” says Matuzak. “They see it as a continuum of public education that includes everything—private schools, parochial schools, charters, public schools. But they believe in the market force as the rule of the universe.”
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