Buying State Policy: A more honest assessment of the DeVos family political influence
Two days ago MLive ran a story that names the DeVos family as the largest single donor to Michigan electoral politics for the 2013-2014 cycle.
The article was prompted by a new report from the Lansing-based watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN). The report, authored by MCFN director Rich Robinson, is a clear indictment of how money dictates electoral outcomes. The cover of the report (shown here) is pretty clear about what happens to democracy with the financial power of families like the DeVos family.
However, even though the MLive article has a hyperlink to the report, they only include part of the title, which says “a citizen’s guide to the cycle.” The MLive reporter omits the part of the report title that says, “Big Money Dominates Michigan Politics.” This is a subtle point, but relevant nonetheless, since the MLive story just presents a simple data overview of the report without any real analysis of what the implication are for individuals or individual families spending millions of dollars to influence the outcome of elections throughout the state.
The MLive reporter does the obligatory quote from the report’s author, but the one sentence is just a restating of the obvious. “The DeVos family doesn’t have a peer among individual donors, or as far as interest groups go,” said Robinson.
Comparatively, the MLive writer asked for a response from the DeVos camp and gave them significantly more print. The response come from Greg McNeilly, who ran Dick DeVos’ failed campaign for the Governor of Michigan in 2006. McNeilly continued to work as a DeVos operative, when he became the Windquest Group’s Chief Operating Officer in 2012. McNeilly also runs one of the DeVos state policy front groups, the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Here is the full MLive quote from McNeilly:
“Political speech is the most protected form of speech, and we need more people participating at higher levels. We should applaud anyone who is leading on that dimension and try to encourage greater participation in our great American experiment.”
Buying State Policy
The larger problem with the MLive article is the utter failure to even follow the money trail to see how the money that spent at the state level impacts election results and policy decisions.
The DeVos family political contributions have had clear results in recent years in Michigan. Their totals for the 2013-2014 cycle were $4,902,055. Most of that money went to the Michigan Republican Party, with smaller amounts going to individual candidates and other state groups that would lobby on their behalf. Lets take a look at a couple of examples of how this plays out.
This past June, Governor Snyder signed into law HB 4052, a law that takes away local control. Why is this relevant, because powerful entities like the DeVos family do not want local communities adopting policies like a living wage, regulations against wage theft or adopting anti-discrimination ordinances that would include or add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community.
HB 4052 was introduced by Rep. Earl Poleski (R) and then went to the Committee on Commerce & Trade, which is chaired by Joseph Graves (R). Graves received $9,000 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, along with several other members of the Committee on Commerce and Trade. This committee recommended that HB 4052 be adopted and then it was put before the Michigan Senate. The Michigan Senate sent the bill to the Competitiveness Committee chaired by Mike Shirkey (R). Rep. Shirkey received $4,500 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, as did several other members of this committee.
Some of the groups that lobby hard for this bill were also recipients of DeVos family money, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce ($5,300) and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce ($30,000). The Michigan Freedom Fund was a major proponent of the legislation and they were funneling money through the Foundation for Michigan Freedom to run paid political ads in favor of HB 4052. The bill was signed into law in June of this year.
A second example would be the recent bill that was also signed into law this summer, HB 4188. This legislation, often framed as a religious freedom bill, would allow adoption agencies in Michigan the ability to deny LGBT couples/partners/families from adopting.
HB 4188 was introduced by Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R). Rep. LaFontaine received $8,100 in campaign contribution in 2014 from the DeVos family. Many of the cosponsors of this bill were also recipients of DeVos family funding.
The largest adoption agency in the state of Michigan is Bethany Christian Services. Bethany has been a major recipient of funding from the various DeVos family foundations. For instance, the most recent 990 documents (2013) for the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation show that they contributed $250,000 to Bethany Christian Services. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation provided $25,000 to Bethany in 2013.
When we look at specific policy outcomes, it becomes clear that the amount of money that families like the DeVos family spend on influencing public policy negatively impacts the lives of millions throughout the state.
It is also worth noting that of the top 15 financial contributors to Michigan politics in the 2013-2014 cycle, five of them are from Grand Rapids. In addition to the DeVos family, there is Michael & Susan Jandernoa, John & Nancy Kennedy, the Van Andel Family and the Meijer Family.
These families are also connected in other ways, serving on numerous boards together and influencing policy in West Michigan. They collaborated, along with other powerful people a few years ago, to form the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has led the way on numerous state policy changes such as Right to Work, the elimination of business tax and more recently the Michigan road funding issue. This West Michigan connection is also not part of the MLive article, even though it seems like it would be an easy connection to make. But then again, Mlive is not in the business of conducting any kind of substantial power analysis, let alone holding power accountable.