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Grand Rapids Power Structure: The DeVos Family

May 17, 2018

On Monday, we began our revision of the current Grand Rapids Power Structure, with an overview of where Grand Rapids is right now in terms of who has power in this community. 

When we say who has power, it is important to note that we mean power over. A local power analysis is designed to investigate who has power over – who oppresses, exploits and engages in policy that benefits them to the exclusion of everyone else – the majority of people living in Grand Rapids.

As we noted in the previous post, we believe that private power – individuals and organizations – have the most power over people in this community, based on the hierarchy of power chart. Private power primarily relies on economic and political power and the family that has the most of that kind of power is the DeVos Family.

In terms of the DeVos Family, we have to start with the patriarch, Richard (Rich) DeVos. Rich is one of the co-founders of the pyramid scheme known as Amway. For the past 45 years, Rich DeVos has been using his wealth to influence economic, social and political realities in this community.

Rich DeVos and his now deceased wife Helen, have contributed more to the Republican Party than any other person in Michigan in the last several decades. The millions of dollars that Rich DeVos has contributed to the national and state GOP has had a tremendous influence in shifting politics to the right on numerous issues. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the DeVos Family as a whole have contributed $82 million since 1999

This amount of money injected into State politics buys a tremendous amount of influence and there are clear examples of how the DeVos Family has influenced policy. (see our examples from 2016

The most powerful family in Grand Rapids also has financed Kent County Commissioners and candidates running for office in Grand Rapids. You can find out which candidates by going to the County Clerk’s Campaign Finance link

The mechanisms that the DeVos Family uses the most to influence public policy, besides money, is their role in the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Policy Forum. Both of these entities have been promoting economic policies that benefit the wealthy, attacks unions, promotes privatization and supports patriarchal, homophobic and white supremacist values.

In Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family has used their wealth and influence to promote the development in downtown Grand Rapids. This process began when they purchased the old Pantlind Hotel and changed its name to the Amway Grand Plaza. Since that time the family has purchased and developed land in downtown Grand Rapids, now owning numerous hotels and office space for their various projects, including the Windquest Group, RDV Corp and ArtPrize.

The DeVos Family also used the group Grand Action to dictate downtown development and re-direct millions of public dollars to finance the Van Andel Arena, the downtown convention center, the downtown market and the restoration of the Civic Theater.

Another major area of influence is the various family foundations. These foundations support far right groups around the country and in Michigan, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, but they also use their foundation money to finance non-profits. DeVos Family funding of non-profits in Grand Rapids, has numerous benefits for the most powerful family in the city.

First, the foundations fund most of the major educational institutions in the area – GVSU, Calvin College, GRCC, Davenport University, Christian Schools and the Grand Rapids Public Schools. This funding of the major education centers in Grand Rapids allows the DeVos Family to have influence in the direction of each of these entities, such as GVSU’s failure to provide domestic partner benefits in the 1990s to the pro-charter, privatization policies that even the GRPS has adopted.

Second, the DeVos Family Foundations have contributed to numerous liberal entities that provide social services in the community. The financing of these entities serves to have a say in managing social policy, which puts the focus on individual behavior, rather then on a systems analysis of social problems. In addition, funding local non-profits guarantees that these non-profits will NOT ever take a public position against the economic and political actions of the DeVos Family, which contributes to poverty, gentrification and white supremacy in the community. Lastly, funding local non-profits has a PR benefit, since many people in this community will take the position that, “where would Grand Rapids be without the DeVos Family.

One additional way that the DeVos Family influences economic, social and political realities in Grand Rapids, is by sitting on Boards or having their people occupy those positions, thus providing an additional mechanism of influence and control of area policy. Some of the more notable entitles that the DeVos Family has people placed on local boards or act as partners are: Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, West MI Policy Forum, The Right Place Inc., Talent 2025, First Steps Kent, GVSU Foundation, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Experience GR, etc.

For a more full account of the history of the DeVos Family and their influence of the political, economic, social and cultural realities of Grand Rapids, check out our DeVos Family Reader

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