While more Americans support upholding ‘Roe v. Wade’ than ever, the Tea Party and the Christian right have teamed up to pass hundreds of restrictions eviscerating abortion rights in GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country.
n the morning of December 11th, Gretchen Whitmer, the charismatic 42-year-old minority leader of the Michigan Senate, stood before her colleagues in the Statehouse in Lansing, and told them something she’d told almost no one before. “Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape,” she said. “And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker.”
No one in the gallery said a word. Instead, with just hours to go before it broke for Christmas recess, Michigan’s overwhelmingly male, Republican-dominated Legislature, having held no hearings nor even a substantive debate, voted to pass one of the most punishing pieces of anti-abortion legislation anywhere in the country: the Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act, which would ban abortion coverage, even in cases of rape or incest, from virtually every health-insurance policy issued in the state. Women and their employers wanting this coverage will instead have to purchase a separate rider – often described as “rape insurance.” Whitmer, a Democrat known as a fierce advocate for women’s issues, described the new law as “by far one of the most misogynistic proposals I’ve seen in the Michigan Legislature.”
And it’s not just Michigan. Eight other states now have laws preventing abortion coverage under comprehensive private insurance plans – only one of them, Utah, makes an exception for rape. And 24 states, including such traditionally blue states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, ban some forms of abortion coverage from policies purchased through the new health exchanges. While cutting insurance coverage of abortion in disparate states might seem to be a separate issue from the larger assault on reproductive rights, it is in fact part of a highly coordinated and so far chillingly successful nationwide campaign, often funded by the same people who fund the Tea Party, to make it harder and harder for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and also to limit their access to many forms of contraception.
All this legislative activity comes at a time when overall support for abortion rights in the United States has never been higher – in 2013, seven in 10 Americans said they supported upholding Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But polls also show that more than half the country is open to placing some restrictions on abortion: Instead of trying to overturn Roe, which both sides see as politically unviable, they have been working instead to chip away at reproductive rights in a way that will render Roe’s protections virtually irrelevant.
Since 2010, when the Tea Party-fueled GOP seized control of 11 state legislatures – bringing the total number of Republican-controlled states to 26 – conservative lawmakers in 30 states have passed 205 anti-abortion restrictions, more than in the previous decade. “What you’re seeing is an underhanded strategy to essentially do by the back door what they can’t do through the front,” says Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is currently litigating against some of the new anti-choice laws. “The politicians and organizations advancing these policies know they can’t come right out and say they’re trying to effectively outlaw abortion, so instead, they come up with laws that are unnecessary, technical and hard to follow, which too often force clinics to close. Things have reached a very dangerous place.”
Last June, the right’s stealth attack on abortion rights became front-page news, when, in an attempt to block a vote on a sweeping omnibus bill that included 20 pages of anti-abortion legislation, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis embarked on an 11-hour-plus filibuster in the Texas Statehouse. Wearing rouge-red Mizuno running shoes and an elegant string of pearls, the blond, blue-eyed Davis, a onetime single mother and a graduate of Harvard Law School, became an overnight symbol of what, in many states, is a growing popular resistance to the conservative anti-choice agenda. But Davis’ filibuster failed to prevent the Texas Legislature from holding a special session in July to pass the bill, despite widespread public opposition.
This was the latest failed battle to protect reproductive rights in a state that in the past few years has passed some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country. Thanks to the cumulative impact of Texas law, a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy must receive pre-abortion counseling to advise her of the supposed physical and emotional health risks, undergo an ultrasound and view an image of her fetus as well as hear it described by her doctor, and then, in most cases, wait another 24 hours before having the procedure. This assumes she can even find a clinic to go to. Women’s-health centers have been shutting their doors all over the Lone Star State since 2011, when, in a specific attempt to defund Planned Parenthood – which operated only a portion of the state’s women’s-health clinics – the Texas Legislature cut the funding to family-planning clinics by two-thirds, eliminating access to low-price contraception and other health services like breast exams and cancer screenings for more than 155,000 women. With the passage of the new restrictions last summer, a third of Texas’ remaining clinics announced they’d have to close or offer fewer services. If additional measures go into effect this September, it could mean potentially leaving just six clinics offering abortions in a state of 26 million people, all of them in urban areas, and none in the entire western half of the state.
Much of the public outrage in recent years has revolved around extreme measures, like proposed “personhood amendments” that would have outlawed abortion outright, and banned many common forms of birth control, stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization. But the anti-abortion movement’s real success has been in passing seemingly innocuous regulations known as TRAP laws (“Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers”), which are designed to punish abortion providers by burying them in mountains of red tape, and, ultimately, driving them out of business.
Twenty-six states, including Texas, have laws on their books requiring that abortion clinics become mini surgical centers, a costly proposition that would require clinics to widen hallways, expand parking lots, modify janitorial closets or install surgical sinks and pipelines for general anesthesia – regulations most providers say are unnecessary. Four states currently (and four more may soon) require that the doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at local hospitals, which applies even in places where the nearest hospitals oppose abortion or are simply too far away to meet the state’s distance requirement. Sixteen states restrict medication-induced abortion; in 39 states, only licensed physicians – not their physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners – are permitted to hand out the drug. Fourteen states ban its use via telemedicine, which is often the only way a woman in a rural part of the country can consult with her doctor.
"It’s a brilliant strategy to package these laws as just making sure abortion is ‘safe,’ [and] in many states, they’ve been able to sell it that way," says Eric Ferrero, VP of communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But abortion is already safe. The mortality rate for abortions is less than .67 per 100,000 procedures. By comparison, the mortality rate for colonoscopies, also commonly performed in outpatient clinics but not subject to similar restrictions, is about 20 out of 100,000.
This incremental approach to eviscerating abortion rights grew out of the recognition at the highest levels of the pro-life movement that their previous message – equating abortion with murder – and the accompanying extremist tactics weren’t working. “Twenty years ago, we’d storm a clinic and close it down for a day – and then I’d get thrown in jail,” says Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, the infamous Kansas-based anti-abortion group that made its name during the 1980s and early 1990s by blocking the entrances to clinics and holding noisy sit-ins – a practice Congress outlawed in 1994. Other tactics, which ranged from handing out pamphlets emblazoned with the image of aborted fetuses, to “naming and shaming” the friends and associates of abortion providers, proved equally unfruitful. “All of that just made the community angry – at me, at the clinic,” says Newman. “And I hated that. I don’t want to wave pictures on the street just to piss people off. I want to win.” So Newman stopped the overt harassment, and settled on a new plan to push for TRAP laws and document alleged abuses at abortion clinics and report them to the authorities. Today, there are only four clinics offering abortions in all of Kansas, which, like Michigan, has its own version of the “rape insurance” law, and has also imposed myriad other restrictions, including the criminalization of abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy. The so-called “20-week ban” violates one of Roe’s central provisions, that a woman has the right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside of the womb – roughly 24 weeks by today’s medical standards. Nonetheless, nine states currently impose the ban, basing it on a theory that is widely disputed by medical groups, that a fetus is able to feel pain at five months.
Polls have consistently shown that support for abortion after the first trimester drops precipitously – 64 percent of the country opposes it during the second trimester, and 80 percent opposes it during the third trimester. This has allowed pro-life groups to strike a note that might on the surface seem reasonable, and as Newman points out, “once you start enforcing a second-trimester ban, the camel’s nose is in the tent.” Arkansas has banned abortion after 12 weeks. North Dakota recently passed a law to criminalize abortion after six weeks, a point when many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant.
Two Washington-based advocacy groups, the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life, are responsible for much of the model legislation restricting abortion, as well as for the grassroots organizing that’s been needed to pass it. Of the two, AUL, which describes itself as both the legal arm and “intellectual architect” of the movement, is chiefly responsible for the most recent and highly successful under-the-radar strategy.
"We don’t make frontal attacks," AUL president and CEO Charmaine Yoest told the National Catholic Registerin 2011. “Never attack where the enemy is strongest.” Some abortion-rights advocates have compared AUL to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive corporate-funded organization responsible for many of the country’s voter-suppression and “Stand Your Ground” laws. Each year, AUL sends state and federal lawmakers across the country a 700-page-plus “pro-life playbook,”Defending Life, which it describes as “the definitive plan for countering a profit-centered and aggressive abortion industry, while laying the groundwork for the ultimate reversal of Roe.” Among its annual features is a 50-state “report card” on the state of anti-abortion legislation, as well as a step-by-step guide, Yoest says, to help lawmakers “understand thatRoe v. Wadedoesn’t preclude them from passing common-sense legislation.”
While “each state has a different scenario,” says Yoest, AUL’s central strategy is to make women – not the “unborn” – the focal point of its efforts. In the past few years, AUL has drafted numerous bills that claim to protect women, recently including them in a new package it has dubbed the “Women’s Protection Project.” Based on misleading facts and dubious medical information, the package is full of model legislation with names like the “Parental Involvement Enhancement Act” (which requires parental notification or consent for underage abortions), the “Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act” (imposes draconian regulations on abortion providers), the “Women’s Health Defense Act” (designed to protect women from the supposed physical and emotional health risks posed by later-term abortion) and the “Women’s Right to Know Act,” perhaps the most punishing measure in the package. To make it possible for a woman to give her “informed consent” before terminating a pregnancy, it requires that she view the fetus she is about to abort, justifying a mandatory ultrasound. “Forced ultrasounds tell a woman exactly what she already knows – that she’s pregnant,” says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “These laws aren’t intended to provide new or useful information; they are intended to force more burden and shame on women who are simply exercising a constitutional right.”
In 2012, Arizona became the first state to pass a version of the Women’s Health Defense Act, one of 65 “life-affirming” laws that AUL claims credit for in the past three years. According to the ACLU, during the 2013 legislative session AUL worked in at least 27 states to, among other things, ban later-term abortion in North Dakota, further limit access to abortion care in Kansas, tighten regulations on parental-consent laws in Arkansas and Montana, and restrict access to medication abortion in Mississippi, a state where unnecessary regulation has already shut down all but one abortion clinic.
In Michigan, Amway scion Richard “Dick” DeVos, the 58-year-old former Republican candidate for governor, is a force behind what he refers to as the state’s “freedom to work” legislation, which passed in 2012 despite a 12,000-person protest that locked opponents out of the state Capitol. DeVos has also funded a variety of religious-right groups, including Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Family Forum, which supported the state’s “rape insurance” bill.
A similar scenario has played out in North Carolina, where millionaire Art Pope has single-handedly changed the face of state politics by pouring millions into state races since 2010, which gave Republicans control of the Legislature and also delivered the governor’s mansion to the GOP in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted some of the nation’s harshest voter-suppression laws, as well as a sweeping package of TRAP laws that drew national attention last year, when lawmakers attempted to sneak it past the public’s scrutiny by first attaching it to a bill ostensibly banning Shariah law, and then attaching it to a bill regulating motorcycle safety. Despite weekly protests, the “motorcycle-vagina bill,” as abortion-rights advocates dubbed it, was passed and signed into law in July, threatening the state’s 16 abortion clinics.
Unlike DeVos, a longtime Christian conservative, Pope calls himself a libertarian and has served as a national director of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. Koch money, through various “social welfare” organizations it supports, has helped fund a significant part of the pro-life agenda, even though the Koch brothers, like Pope, have never taken a personal interest in reproductive politics, and David Koch has even stated his support for marriage equality. “They know the policies they want wouldn’t be attractive to enough people unless they also included the social-conservative policies, so what’s happened is they’ve merged the social and economic agenda into a single product,” says Rachel Tabachnick, an associate fellow at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. “This is not new, it’s a project that goes back decades,” she says, “and it’s one in which the war on reproductive rights is a non-negotiable part of the deal.”
Connecting the fiscal and social agendas into a single, conservative “worldview” has been the goal of conservatives since the Reagan era. To outsiders, the Tea Party, with its focus on cutting taxes and spending, might seem to rule the party. But looks can be deceiving. Evangelicals, long outsiders in the GOP power structure, now hold large sway in the party through organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. “I’d say it’s kind of baked into the cake,” Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said recently on MSNBC.
IN THE PREDAWN TWILIGHT of December 4, 2012, Randy Richardville, the Republican majority leader of the Michigan Senate, called an old friend to deliver some grim news. Richardville’s two-hour commute to the state capitol in Lansing gave him plenty of time to check in with friends, staff, and colleagues, who were accustomed to his early morning calls. None more so than Mike Jackson.
Jackson and Richardville had grown up in the auto town of Monroe, 40 miles south of Detroit. Jackson now headed Michigan’s 14,000-member carpenters and millwrights’ union, which had endorsed Richardville, a moderate Republican, for 10 of the 12 years he’d served in the state Legislature.
"Guess where I was last night," Richardville said.
Jackson wasn’t in a guessing mood—and it wasn’t just the early hour. Since the election a few weeks earlier, Republicans had been aiming to use the current lame-duck session to ram through a controversial piece of legislation known as right-to-work. Such laws, already on the books in 23 states, outlawed contracts requiring all employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues for union representation. Jackson and other labor leaders were scrambling to head off the bill, widely regarded as a disaster for unions. Richardville, who had once told a hotel conference room filled with union members that right-to-work would pass “over my dead body,” was one of the votes they’d counted on.
Richardville said he’d spent the previous evening at a fundraiser in western Michigan. At one point during the event, he was escorted into a private room where a dozen wealthy business moguls were waiting for him. Some he recognized as heavy hitters in Michigan politics; others had flown in from out of state.
One of the men in the room glared at Richardville. “You gotta grow a set and move this legislation,” the man said, referring to right-to-work. Had he ever run for office? Richardville asked. The man said no. “Well, when you grow a set and give that a try,” Richardville snapped, “then you can talk about the size of my testicles.”
Jackson was wide awake now. “Good for you,” he said. “How’d it end?”
"Mike, you’re fucked," Richardville said. "They’ve got all the money they need, they’re going up on the air, and they’re going to push this freedom-to-work thing."
Wasn’t there some way to head off the bill? Jackson asked. “They’ve got my caucus,” Richardville replied. “You can’t imagine the pressure I’m under.”
The pressure came largely from one man present at that fundraiser: Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr. The 58-year-old scion of the Amway Corporation, DeVos had arm-twisted Richardville repeatedly to support right-to-work. After six years of biding their time, DeVos and his allies believed the 2012 lame duck was the time to strike. They had formulated a single, all-encompassing strategy: They had a fusillade of TV, radio, and internet ads in the works. They’d crafted 15 pages of talking points to circulate to Republican lawmakers. They had even reserved the lawn around the state capitol for a month to keep protesters at bay.
A week after Richardville’s early morning call to Jackson, it was all over. With a stroke of his pen on December 11, Gov. Rick Snyder—who’d previously said right-to-work was not a priority of his—now made Michigan the 24th state to enact it. The governor marked the occasion by reciting, nearly verbatim, talking points that DeVos and his allies had distributed. “Freedom-to-work,” he said, is “pro-worker and pro-Michigan.”
THE DEVOSES sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures. “There’s not a Republican president or presidential candidate in the last 50 years who hasn’t known the DeVoses,” says Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Nowhere has the family made its presence felt as it has in Michigan, where it has given more than $44 million to the state party, GOP legislative committees, and Republican candidates since 1997. “It’s been a generational commitment,” Anuzis notes. “I can’t start to even think of who would’ve filled the void without the DeVoses there.”
The family fortune flows from 87-year-old Richard DeVos Sr. The son of poor Dutch immigrants, he cofounded the multilevel-marketing giant Amway with Jay Van Andel, a high school pal, in 1959. Five decades later, the company now sells $11 billion a year worth of cosmetics, vitamin supplements, kitchenware, air fresheners, and other household products. Amway has earned DeVos Sr. at least $6 billion; in 1991, he expanded his empire by buying the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The Koch brothers can usually expect Richard and his wife, Helen, to attend their biannual donor meetings. He is a lifelong Christian conservative and crusader for free markets and small government, values he passed down to his four children.
Today, his eldest son, Dick, is the face of the DeVos political dynasty. Like his father, Dick sees organized labor as an enemy of freedom and union leaders as violent thugs who have “an almost pathological obsession with power.” But while DeVos Sr. simply inveighed against unions, Dick took the fight to them directly, orchestrating a major defeat for the unions in the cradle of the modern labor movement.
Passing right-to-work in Michigan was more than a policy victory. It was a major score for Republicans who have long sought to weaken the Democratic Party by attacking its sources of funding and organizing muscle. “Michigan big labor literally controls one of the major political parties,” Dick DeVos said last January. “I’m not suggesting they have influence; I’m saying they hold total dominance, command, and control.” So DeVos and his allies hit labor—and the Democratic Party—where it hurt: their bank accounts. By attacking their opponents’ revenue stream, they could help put Michigan into play for the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential race—as it was more than three decades earlier, when the state’s Reagan Democrats were key to winning the White House.
More broadly, the Michigan fight has given hope—and a road map—to conservatives across the country working to cripple organized labor and defund the left. Whereas party activists had for years viewed right-to-work as a pipe dream, a determined and very wealthy family, putting in place all the elements of a classic political campaign, was able to move the needle in a matter of months. “Michigan is Stalingrad, man,” one prominent conservative activist told me. “It’s where the battle will be won or lost.”
STEP OFF THE JET BRIDGE at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, and the DeVos imprimatur is everywhere. Leaving the airport you pass the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter school founded by Dick DeVos in 2010. In Grand Rapids itself, there’s the DeVos Place convention center, the DeVos Performance Hall, the DeVos Graduate School of Management, the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship, the DeVos Communication Center at Calvin College, and the DeVos parking lot at Grand Valley State University.
I grew up not far from Grand Rapids, and the DeVos name was never far from mind. I heard it on the radio and at the dinner table—my parents are both teachers, and the DeVoses’ education reform efforts were a topic of discussion. In western Michigan, the DeVoses were the closest thing we had to Carnegies or Rockefellers.
Populated by the descendants of devout Dutch immigrants, Grand Rapids is a deeply Christian enclave that locals call “GRusalem.” Once a city of furniture makers, Grand Rapids began to prosper in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks largely to Amway. Launched in an abandoned gas station, the company grew into an empire by enlisting an army of “independent business owners,” or IBOs, to peddle Amway’s wares, eventually expanding to more than 100 countries and territories. The company formulated the business model now used by the likes of Mary Kay, Avon, and Herbalife, in which salespeople earn money by recruiting others into the business. In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission accused Amway of operating a pyramid scheme, but after a years-long investigation the agency rescinded the charge.
From the start, DeVos and Van Andel infused Amway—short for “American Way”—with their Christian beliefs and free-market principles. The Institute for Free Enterprise, a think tank run out of Amway’s headquarters, organized workshops nationwide to help teachers incorporate free-market economics into their lesson plans. During the 1970s, Amway bought ads in major newspapers that railed against taxation and regulation. Together, DeVos and Van Andel also helped to launch the now-defunct Citizen’s Choice, a conservative counterweight to the good-government group Common Cause. A smattering of headlines in the centerfold of Amway’s 1980 corporate magazine captures the company’s institutional philosophy: “Entrepreneur DeVos Preaches Self-Help: GOVERNMENT MEDDLING ASSAILED.” “Taxes and Government Rules Destroying Free Enterprise—Van Andel.”
Amway’s success and its conservative ethos catapulted both the elder DeVos and Van Andel into the highest reaches of Republican politics. Van Andel, who died in 2004, chaired the US Chamber of Commerce in 1979 and 1980, and he gave millions to Republican and conservative organizations in his lifetime. DeVos, meanwhile, was an early member and funder of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of hardline conservative leaders founded by LeftBehindauthor Tim LaHaye. Ahead of the 1980 elections, Ronald Reagan personally askedDeVos to lead the GOP’s national fundraising efforts. Short on cash and reeling from Jimmy Carter’s election and the aftershocks of the Watergate scandal, the party needed all the help it could get. As the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, DeVos raised $46.5 million ($132 million in today’s dollars).
He fit the part of GOP rainmaker-in-chief, wearing a diamond pinkie ring and Gucci loafers, driving a Rolls-Royce, and frequently commuting to his nearby office by helicopter. He once docked Amway’s $5 million yacht on the Potomac River in Washington to hold court with Michigan’s congressional delegation, RNC staffers, and personnel from 12 embassies representing countries where Amway did business. DeVos was also a strident voice within the party: In an era when Republicans still courted labor, he urged the GOP to ignore union members. “If they want to be represented by somebody else,” he once said, “good for them.” At a party meeting in 1982, he called the recession that was spiking inflation and unemployment “beneficial” and “a cleansing tonic” for society.
The RNC canned him soon after, but that didn’t stop DeVos and his clan from steering hundreds of thousands of dollars into Reagan’s 1984 reelection effort and George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign. On the eve of the 1994 elections, Amway made a $2.5 million soft money contribution to the Republican Party; it was the largest corporate donation ever recorded. Amway also galvanized its 500,000-plus sales force into a massive political network, drumming up hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions for favored candidates like Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), a former Amway saleswoman and the first female chair of the ultraconservative Republican Study Committee.
In late 1992, Dick succeeded his father as the president and CEO of Amway, aggressively expanding the company into Asian markets like China and Korea, which produce much of Amway’s profits today. His wife, Betsy, an heiress to a Michigan auto parts fortune, hailed from a conservative dynasty of her own; her father, Edgar Prince, was a founder of the Family Research Council. (Betsy’s brother is Erik Prince, the ex-Navy SEAL who founded the infamous private security company Blackwater.) Together, Dick and Betsy formed Michigan’s new Republican power couple.
Betsy, who is 56, is the political junkie in the relationship. She got her start in politics as a “scatter-blitzer” for Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign, which bused eager young volunteers to various cities so they could blanket them with campaign flyers. In the ’80s and ’90s, Betsy climbed the party ranks to become a Republican National Committeewoman, chair numerous US House and Senate campaigns in Michigan, lead statewide party fundraising, and serve two terms as chair of the Michigan Republican Party. In 2003, she returned at the request of the Bush White House to dig the party out of $1.2 million in debt. A major proponent of education reform, Betsy serves on the boards of the American Federation for Children, a leading advocate of school vouchers, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supports online schools.
Through the ’70s and ’80s Dick worked his way up at Amway and, like his father, rose to prominence within GOP circles thanks to his prodigious fundraising, generous political contributions, and his perch atop the family’s multibillion-dollar company. In 1998, he launched a PAC called Restoring the American Dream, which then-House Majority Leader (and former Amway salesman) Tom DeLay credited with playing “an essential role" in preserving GOP control of the House in 1998 and 2000. DeLay, Myrick, and three other House Republicans who had been Amway salespeople created an informal "Amway caucus.”
The DeVos name carried plenty of weight in Washington, but the clan loomed especially large in Michigan, and had opportunities to exert its influence in ways big and small. Once, Betsy complained to her hometown newspaper, theGrand Rapids Press,after an April 2004 story reported that she had blamed “high wages” for Michigan’s economic woes—a comment that touched off a statewide controversy. As unhappy as she was, there wasn’t much chance she’d been misquoted: The reporter had taken the language out of an official Michigan GOP press release and had even given Betsy a chance to respond to her own words. Mike Lloyd, then thePress' editor, says that while he doesn't recall the details of DeVos' grievance, it's likely he heard her out. Ultimately, the paper ran an unusual mea culpa saying the article had “oversimplified” the remarks while “distorting her original meaning.” (In general, Lloyd denies the family ever used its “economic muscle…to attempt to influence or change” the paper's coverage.)
Mike Pumford knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the DeVoses. A former high school teacher and public school administrator, he was elected to the state House in 1998 as a moderate Republican, and he publicly opposed Dick and Betsy’s push to expand charter schools and introduce school vouchers. (In 2000, Dick and Betsy helped underwrite a ballot initiative to expand the use of vouchers and lost badly.)
When Pumford ran for reelection in 2002, a DeVos-funded group called the Great Lakes Education Project blanketed his rural district with glossy flyers calling him a puppet of theMichigan Education Association and a “tax-and-spend Republican” for backing an increase in cigarette taxes. “They just kicked my ass in that election,” he says. And though he eked out a victory, the DeVoses got the final word. When Pumford asked for the chairmanship of the subcommittee overseeing public education funding, he says, then-House Speaker Rick Johnson told him there was “no way in hell we can give it to you.” Why? It would piss off the DeVoses. (Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.)
In 2004, Pumford quit politics in disgust. “I spent a lot of time fighting bullies,” he told me. “Kids tend to bully with their mouths and fists. Billionaires tend to bully with their pocketbooks.”
FOR DICK DEVOS, the fight over right-to-work started with a humbling defeat. In 2006, he ran for governor of Michigan, spending $35 million of family money—the most ever spent on a gubernatorial campaign in the state—only to be routed by incumbent Jennifer Granholm. His timing was terrible: Thanks to Iraq War weariness and a series of GOP scandals, not one Republican beat an incumbent Democrat in a congressional or gubernatorial race anywhere in America that year. Postelection, DeVos turned down offers to run the state party and ducked out of the political limelight to ponder his next move.
The following year, he and a close ally, Ron Weiser, whose prolific fundraising had earned him the US ambassadorship to Slovakia under George W. Bush, hired Republican pollster Bill McInturff to gauge Michiganders’ views on a range of issues. According to Weiser, McInturff came back with a surprising result—his polls showed nearly 70 percent support for right-to-work. DeVos and Weiser shared their findings with donors and operatives statewide, quietly brainstorming about how to capitalize on those numbers.
Despite declining membership, nearly 20 percent of Michigan’s workforce belonged to unions and, as in other union-heavy states, right-to-work had long been a right-wing fantasy. For decades, the lone voice on the issue was the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a state-level think tank founded in 1987 to spread free-market ideas and antagonize the unions. (In a June 2011 email obtained byProgress Michigan, a Mackinac Center staffer told a state lawmaker: “Our goal is [to] outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA.”) The DeVoses are among the center’s biggest financial backers, and Dick served on its board of directors. Still, despite a flurry of policy briefs and op-eds produced by the Mackinac Center, the issue remained a nonstarter. “We never had the sense that the votes were there to get it done,” John Engler, the former governor, told the National Reviewin 2012. “A lot of Republicans weren’t ready to deal with the issue. Labor was too strong.”
Studying McInturff’s polling numbers, DeVos and Weiser saw a shift in the political winds. Early in 2008, they dined in Washington, DC, with former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who in 2001 became the first governor in nearly a decade to sign a right-to-work bill into law. He knew just how fierce the fight could be. Keating advised DeVos and Weiser to hold off on right-to-work until they’d elected a Republican governor and, ideally, taken full control of the Legislature. (Democrats controlled the state House at the time.) “That resonated hugely with Dick,” says one friend. “He said, ‘I’m for this, but until we have a governor who’s going to champion it, we need to bide our time.’ So it went on the shelf.”
In 2009, with DeVos’ help, Weiser was elected as the state GOP chair, and he led the party to a landslide in 2010, winning every state-level race. But the new Republican governor, Rick Snyder, resisted right-to-work, saying repeatedly it was “not on my agenda.” Watching his fellow Class of ‘10 governors—especially Scott Walker in neighboring Wisconsin—clash with organized labor dampened Snyder’s enthusiasm for the “very divisive” issue.
But some of the Legislature’s Republican members wanted this fight. A small but vocal group of them had campaigned on right-to-work and agitated for the issue as soon as the 2011-12 session convened. “It was kind of like the kid on the way to Disney World saying, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’” recalled Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck.
As the chorus grew louder, the unions decided to launch a preemptive strike. In July 2012, they got an amendment on the ballot that would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. Known as Proposition 2, the ballot measure sent labor’s enemies into overdrive. “The minute that thing got on the ballot, we knew we needed to mobilize quickly,” says Greg McNeilly, Dick and Betsy’s longtime political adviser.
That summer, a group of GOP lawmakers and business leaders—McNeilly won’t say who—asked DeVos and Weiser (who served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee in 2012) to lead the charge to defeat Proposition 2. They gladly took on the job—DeVos called Prop. 2 “a head-shot at Michigan’s recovery”—but they had bigger things in mind: With McNeilly, who managed the anti-Prop. 2 campaign, DeVos and Weiser sketched out a strategy to defeat the measure, then use the political momentum to pass right-to-work immediately afterward. They also strategized about every other possible obstacle: defending the law from a possible legal challenge, beating a constitutional amendment to repeal it, and protecting Republican lawmakers from recall elections.
Working out of an nondescript brick rowhouse in suburban Virginia, a little-known organization named Donors Trust, staffed by five employees, has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to the most influential think tanks, foundations, and advocacy groups in the conservative movement. Over the past decade, it has funded the right’s assault on labor unions, climate scientists, public schools, economic regulations, and the very premise of activist government. Yet unlike its nearest counterpart on the progressive side, the Tides Foundation, a bogeyman of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, Donors Trust has mostly avoided any real scrutiny. It is the dark-money ATM of the right.
Founded in 1999, Donors Trust (and an affiliated group, Donors Capital Fund) has raised north of $500 million and doled out $400 million to more than 1,000 conservative and libertarian groups, according to Whitney Ball, the group’s CEO. Donors Trust allows wealthy contributors who want to donate millions to the most important causes on the right to do so anonymously, essentially scrubbing the identity of those underwriting conservative and libertarian organizations. Wisconsin’s 2011 assault on collective bargaining rights? Donors Trust helped fund that. ALEC, the conservative bill mill? Donors Trust supports it. The climate deniers at the Heartland Institute? They get Donors Trust money, too.
Donors Trust is not the source of the money it hands out. Some 200 right-of-center funders who’ve given at least $10,000 fill the group’s coffers. Charities bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the DeVoses, and the Bradleys, among other conservative benefactors, have given to Donors Trust. And other recipients of Donors Trust money include the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the NRA’s Freedom Action Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, chaired (PDF) by none other than David Koch.
In a recent interview, Ball, who calls herself a libertarian, went to great lengths to stress that she’s no Koch brothers stooge, and that Donors Trust is not yet another appendage of the almighty "Kochtopus." She insists, “We were not created by them at all.”
Donors Trust is a so-called "donor-advised fund," a breed apart from a family foundation like, say, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which helped build the conservative movement over decades with donations totaling tens of millions of dollars. The people who donate to Donors Trust don’t get final say over how their money is spent. But they get to recommend where their cash goes, and in exchange for giving up some control, they get a bigger tax write-off than they would with a family foundation. (And those who wish it get anonymity.)
Ball says she travels all over the country courting wealthy conservatives and libertarians, and attends Koch donor retreats and Cato “shareholder” meetings. The crux of her pitch is this: Rich folks can give to Donors Trust and rest easy knowing that their millions will continue bankrolling the conservative movement long into the future, even after their death.
Donors Trust grew out of the fear among right-leaning donors that their family foundations might end up in the hands of those who would fund centrist or, even worse, left-of-center causes. At the behest of the late Bruce Jacobs, a Seattle-area businessman and “paleocon” who didn’t want to underwrite a local community foundation, Ball and a conservative strategist named Kimberly Dennis created Donors Trust.
Donors Trust is the only honey-pot of its kind for right-leaning donors. But on the left, there’s theTides Foundation, which gives out tens of millions of dollars each year to thousands of left-leaning groups in the US and overseas (including Mother Jones' nonprofit arm, the Foundation for National Progress). Tides is a target of conspiracy theorists such as TV and radio host Glenn Beck, who hasfeatured Tides on his infamous connect-the-dots chalkboard. But Donors Trust’s strategic intent is far narrower and more coherent than Tides’. The groups funded by Donors Trust more or less pursue the same agenda—eliminate regulations, kneecap unions, shrink government, and transfer more power to the private sector.
Donors Trust keeps its contributors secret. Funders can ask Donor Trust to publicly identify their donations, but very few do, Ball says. The reasons for preferring anonymity are many. Some donors want to avoid attention; others don’t want their mailboxes and inboxes filling up with unwanted solicitations for more money.
Tax records, however, reveal some of the sugar-daddies of the conservative and libertarian movement who funnel big money through Donors Trust. The Knowledge and Progress Fund, a charity bankrolled by Charles Koch, gave $2 million in 2010. The DeVos family charity, another pillar of conservative politics, contributed $1 million in 2009 and $1.5 million in 2010. And yet another long-time bankroller of conservative politics, the Bradley family, donated $650,000 through their charity between 2001 and 2010.
h/t: Mother Jones