Influence Peddler of the Month
January 3, 2017
Betsy DeVos, the rightwing Michigan billionaire who GOP President-elect Donald Trump has picked for his Education Secretary, has long supported the creation and expansion of state school voucher and charter school programs in Wisconsin and across the country.
To that end, Betsy and eight other members of the DeVos family, which owns Amway, have spent nearly a half-million dollars on direct contributions to mostly Republican and conservative Wisconsin legislative and statewide candidates, since 2000, including about $79,000 from Betsy herself. In addition to the Amway family fortune, Betsy and her husband, Dick, own Windquest Group, which invests in technology and manufacturing.
Betsy DeVos is a Michigan native and daughter of Edgar Prince, an industrialist who founded the Prince Corp., an auto parts supplier, and the conservative Family Research Council. Her brother, Erik, founded the notorious Blackwater USA security firm, which drew nationwide attention for its mercenary activities during the Iraq war.
Betsy, 59, and Dick have also been active in Republican Party politics. She has served as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. He was an unsuccessful Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2006.
Betsy and Dick founded and funded pro-school-voucher electioneering groups, including All Children Matter, and the American Federation for Children (AFC). Betsy DeVos also chaired additional organizations in the 1990s that pushed state school voucher programs. She has been referred to as “the four-star general of the voucher movement” for her longtime work on the issue.
Until Trump nominated her as Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was the chairwoman of AFC, which spent an estimated $6.4 million on outside electioneering activities in Wisconsin since January 2010. The federation is affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice, which she has also chaired.
Most recently, Betsy DeVos contributed $100,000 in October to the American Federation for Children’s independent expenditure committee in Wisconsin and another $25,000 in August to the Wisconsin Federation of Children political action committee, which makes direct contributions to candidates. One of the group’s lobbyists and senior advisers is Scott Jensen, a former GOP Assembly Speaker who was disgraced by the Caucus Scandal. Nationally, Betsy DeVos contributed more than $380,000 to federal Republican and conservative committees and candidates in the 2015-16 election cycle.
Milwaukee’s school voucher program started in 1990, making it the oldest in the country. The program’s enrollment grew steadily and was later expanded to Racine in 2011, and then statewide in 2013. State spending on the voucher program has ballooned from less than $1 million a year in 1990 to more than $270 million in 2016-17. All told, state spending on voucher schools from 2011, when Republicans took control of the legislature and Walker took office, through 2016 totals $1.2 billion.
During Walker’s controversial 2012 recall election, AFC spent an estimated $1.1 million to successfully help keep him in office. Walker has also been a top recipient of direct contributions from the DeVos family, which has contributed $342,600 to his three campaigns for governor, including $11,000 from Betsy DeVos.
Betsy DeVos summarized her view on money in politics in a 1997 opinion piece for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call where she said the DeVos family is "the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party….I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government.”
Nationally, the Devos family has doled out at least $200 million since 1970 to fund conservative think tanks, political committees and groups, and religious organizations and school in particular, according to reports in Inside Philanthropy and Mother Jones magazine.
In addition to their individual contributions to candidates and groups, Betsy and Dick DeVos run the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which funds school voucher, private and religious schools and organizations, and rightwing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, among other interests.