On the homepage of almost any major news publication, one can read about the latest bombastic actions of the current crop of conservative candidates - Trump, Cruz, Carson etc. Behind all of the pageantry and show, however, it is critical for people of conscience to consider how big-money donors can influence public policy. Most people have heard of big spenders like the Koch brothers or the Walton family—well known for using their money to shape not only policies, but also the very infrastructure of our political system. But who are those deep-pocketed names we’ve never heard of?
The DeVos family—Michigan-based builders of the Amway fortune—is one of the most influential families in conservative U.S. politics. Their agenda includes many items on the Corporate and Christian Right’s wish lists, including so-called “right to work” laws that weaken unions, discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bills, and education privatization (including pushing school vouchers that transfer public dollars to private religious coffers). Although some of their higher-profile activities such as Dick DeVos’ failed 2006 race for Michigan governor and Richard DeVos´ ownership of the Orlando Magic basketball team are covered in the press, their political spending has gotten far less attention. This year 435 seats will be contested in the House of Representatives, 35 in the Senate and 13 gubernatorial races will take place alongside local and county elections; therefore it is critically important for the country to see and debate the influence that rich families like the DeVoses are wielding in politics.
Though they share the Kochs´ commitment to corporate welfare, the DeVoses also promote a Christian Right cultural and social agenda. They use their money and influence to contribute to conservative infrastructure, including think tanks, astroturf organizations and policy advocacy groups, both in Michigan and elsewhere. The family epitomizes the disturbing trend toward billionaires willing to spend big money to change the political structure—a structure that, as PRA’s late founder and political scientist Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, is “drifting toward oligarchy”.
The DeVos Family
Based in western Michigan, the DeVoses fund a number of organizations that push conservative policies including right to work, RFRA, and school vouchers. Richard DeVos, the patriarch of the family, is one of the original founders of Amway, a supplier of everything from home care products to insurance (the company was ranked 30th largest U.S. company by Forbes in 2015, and pulled in nearly $11 billion last year).
If you were to walk through Grand Rapids or Detroit, it would be nearly impossible not to notice the DeVos name: the DeVos Convention Center, DeVos Performance Hall, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship and DeVos Graduate School of Management to name a few places. For many in Michigan, the name is synonymous with western Michigan, conservative philanthropy and the Republican Party.
For the past 50 years, Richard and his wife Helen have positioned themselves as one of the most important families in Michigan politics. Their son and daughter-in-law, Dick and Betsy DeVos, are following in their footsteps with their own foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. (Betsy is the daughter of Edgar Prince, a founder of the Family Research Council.) Between 2000 and 2012, the family gave nearly $5.4 million to the Michigan Republican Party, according to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report also demonstrates how the DeVoses exert influence over state and national policy making. For example, the DeVoses gave $50,000 to a Michigan ballot committee that worked to ban same sex marriage in 2004; the committee also received support from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and the Michigan Family Forum. Locally, their money has found its way into 70 different Michigan political committees. According to a report by the Michigan Campaign Finance network, the family gave $4,902,055 during the 2013-2014 cycle.
Right to Work
Right to work laws originated in the Old Right of the 1950s and, as PRA economic justice researcher Mariya Strauss has written, are designed to “remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job.”
The story of how Michigan became a right to work state features the backroom dealings and pressures from big business that have typified right to work battles in state after state since the 1950s.
The DeVos family pushed for this legislation long before it landed on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder´s desk. The West Michigan Policy Forum organizes yearly conferences bringing together policy makers and business leaders in order to advance a so-called pro-business agenda in Michigan. The organization, Dick’s brother Doug DeVos was former board chairman, has pushed for right to work since 2008. After the family spent $4.9 million on political candidates and committees during the 2014 state elections, right to work passed and was signed. In addition to the work of the West Michigan Policy Forum, the DeVos family also gave at least $2 million to fight a union-backed amendment to the bill that would have guaranteed unions the right to bargain.
Outside Michigan, the DeVos family is also tied to the national Tea Party organization, Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers and has now setup 36 state-based shops to operate out of. The DeVoses gave AFP over $800,000 between 2007-2011. This connection to David and Charles Koch points to a key observation: not only do the two families hold similar policy positions, but they also fund some of the same groups. AFP not only played a role in garnering support for right to work in Michigan, it also led a coalition pushing for a right to work law in Missouri. Although AFP failed to get the bill passed this year; workers’ rights advocates say they expect it will return soon.
Americans for Prosperity has continued trying to build support for the bill in other states such as Kentucky. FreedomWorks—another conservative advocacy organization that represents a strategic partnership with the Kochs—runs public relations and advertising campaigns for anti-union and right to work bills. The organization received $600,000 between 2009 and 2011 from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, according to SourceWatch. Their online presence is also significant, as it is a key tool used to spread information on their anti-union and right to work positions.
So-called “school choice” seems to be the area where the family has invested the most outside of Michigan. School choice is a blanket term used to describe everything from school voucher programs to charters to online “virtual” schools, and has garnered support from both Republicans and some Democrats. Conservative donors such as the DeVos family have used their money to influence this national trend. One of the biggest events is the annual School Choice Week, which included 11,082 individual events across the country last year. Every January the events are marketed as a social justice movement whose aim is to “raise public awareness for all types of educations options for children”. Behind the scenes, its most influential backers are the DeVoses and other conservative donors who have been pushing for more private and more religious schooling.
A look at the main partners—and their affiliations—helps shed light on the ideas driving School Choice Week. The American Federation for Children is a public policy organization whose board of directors is chaired by Betsy DeVos. According to SourceWatch, the organization, a 501(c)(4), is the political organizing arm of the Alliance for School Choice. The DeVos have been tied to efforts in Pennsylvania to eradicate public education by giving over $15 million over the last five years. PRA research fellow Rachel Tabachnick has compiled an anthology of the DeVos family’s efforts to eradicate public education. As a front group that funnels money into other groups around the country, American Federation for Children has links to a number of other organizations which the DeVos family gave a total of $355,000 in 2013 - such as the American Enterprise Institute, Alliance for School Choice, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education is another sponsor of School Choice Week. Based in Florida, the organization is an example of how the DeVos family’s money has expanded outside of Michigan. The foundation received $100,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation in 2013, and Betsy sits on the board of directors. Another group supported by the family is the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The New York-based group provides scholarships for students to study outside of the public school system. Pamella DeVos, wife of Dan DeVos, sits on the board of directors and helps direct the organization’s work in eight states.
As previously reported by PRA, this past summer Michigan passed a statewide religious exemption law that gives adoption agencies the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. The DeVos family donated $300,000 in 2013 alone to Bethany Christian Services, Michigan’s leading adoption agency and the main group that lobbied for the religious exemption bill.
The DeVos family also furthers LGBTQ discrimination through donations to their numerous foundations and religious conservative initiatives outside of their home state. The DeVos family, through its giving patterns, maintains ties to the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Federalist Society - all organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions.
At the Heritage Foundation, The Devos Center for Religion and Civil Society “examines the role that religion, family, and community [play] in society and public policy”. With the $1.8 million grant, the Center seeks to “help policy-makers, scholars, journalists and other leaders examine the important role of religious thought and activity in the United States, how it influences society and how it affects-an it affected-by public policy”. The center has taken a stance against same-sex marriage, called for defunding planned parenthood, and sponsored events aimed at furthering conservative positions. Along with their center at the Heritage Foundation, the DeVos family is also tied to the conservative Christian foundation, Focus on the Family.
Focus on the Family is a one of the most well funded anti-LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. The conservative Christian foundation has received $800,000 from DeVos foundations. Focus on the Family has published numerous articles making the false claim that LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policies poses to religious freedom. The organization donated over $115,000 to defeat marriage equality in Maine, and $91,000 to defeat civil unions in Washington State, according to a 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign. In the same report, the DeVoses were cited as sponsoring an annual conference advocating “ex-gay” or reparative therapy, the discredited practice of trying to somehow alter a persons’ sexual orientation. (The American Psychological Association has warned that the dangerous therapy poses serious risk to youth, and reparative therapy on minors has been banned in several states.)
The Federalist Society is an influential conservative legal organization that advocates for a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. The group says it aims to “[reorder] priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law”. Members include conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. As by PRA, the Federalist Society “states that its purpose is to foster debate and discussion about the issues, but the articles and interpretations in its publications are all decidedly conservative and/or libertarian”. Through multiple foundations, the DeVos family contributed $55,000 in 2013 alone.
The Federalist society takes an anti-LGBTQ stance through its support of lawyers hostile to equal rights. Through their university campus chapters around the country, they host events hostile to LGBTQ equality such as one at Northwestern University Law School where the chapter hosted a debate on LGBTQ discrimination with food catered by Chick-fil-A (whose CEO publicly opposed marriage equality in 2012, prompting a national bycott).
DeVoses branching out
While Michigan has traditionally been the DeVos family’s stronghold, their influence for right to work, school privatization and RFRA bills is creeping into statehouses across the country. As states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri are pushing to become right to work states, it is worth asking how DeVos money finds its way to these battles. At the same time as their efforts to expand education privatization increase, their efforts to push RFRA bills continue to find their ways into state legislatures across the country. Through a network of organizations, the DeVos yield an impressive amount of power and influence in statehouses around the country. As the election cycle heats up in 2016, grassroots progressive organizers need to understand how billionaires such as the DeVoses are wielding influence.