Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary, built her political resume by raising and contributing millions of dollars to support the cause of giving parents choices on where their children go to school.
The daughter of one wealthy businessman and the wife of another, DeVos has headed a series of groups that help rich contributors spend large sums on elections, including one that was assessed the biggest fine ever by the Ohio Elections Commission.
A look at her political activities.
WHO IS BETSY DEVOS?
DeVos is the daughter of an auto parts manufacturer who married into another wealthy Michigan family, the one that runs Amway.
Her family is steeped in politics. Her father, Edgar Prince, was a major early donor to the Family Research Council. Her husband, Dick DeVos, lost a 2006 run for governor of Michigan, and DeVos herself served as the chairwoman of the state Republican Party. Her brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of the security company Blackwater, which has had key government contracts.
Her education experience is mainly through advocating for school choice. She attended private Christian schools. Her children, now grown, were educated through a combination of private schools and homeschooling.
During a 2001 appearance at a retreat of Christian philanthropists, she said, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
GIVING TO POLITICS
DeVos personally contributed at least $2.3 million to candidates and political action committees from 2007 through last year.
Her family, including husband and one-time Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, mother Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, brother Erik Prince and father- and mother-in-law Richard and Helen DeVos contributed a combined $19 million in that same period.
RAISING SOFT MONEY
Twenty years ago, DeVos wrote an opinion piece for the Washington publication Roll Call in which she said her family was the leading contributor of “soft money” donations to political parties. Unlike money given directly to a candidate, money given to the political parties is largely unregulated, thus the term “soft money.”
“We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues,” she wrote. “We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government.”
PROMOTING BALLOT MEASURES
In 2000, DeVos was a key player in a ballot initiative fight in Michigan over whether the state would allow vouchers for private schools.
She and her husband contributed nearly $1.6 million to the losing effort. The couple and their relatives paid for more than one-third of the campaign overall.
TROUBLE IN OHIO
In 2006, DeVos’s school-choice group, All Children Matter, had a political action committee in Virginia, where contributions are unlimited. The group raised $17.8 million that year, and more than 40 percent of it was contributed to affiliated PACs in other states.
The group asked Ohio campaign finance regulators if it would be OK to shift money from Virginia to Ohio, a state with strict campaign contribution limits. The state said it would be illegal.
The committee made the shift, anyway. All $870,000 spent by the Ohio operation of All Children Matter that year was funneled through Virginia.
Ohio campaign finance regulators in 2008 ordered the group to pay $5.3 million in fines, an amount it still has not paid.
In recent years, DeVos’s groups had significant independent spending on political races.
Generally, groups can spend without limits as long as they don’t coordinate with campaign committees. In most places, they’re not required to disclose the individuals who fund them, which is why some of this kind of expenditure is known as “dark money.”
According to tax filings from 2011 through 2015, groups DeVos ran or that were subsidiaries of those she ran – American Federation for Children, American Federation for Children Action Fund, Great Lakes Education Project and Students First Pennsylvania – combined for nearly $20 million in political spending. Some of that money may have been double-counted after being passed from one of the organizations to another.
It’s not clear how much of that money was from DeVos herself.
BENEFITING FROM DARK MONEY
At least two groups that do not report their donors ran ad campaigns to support DeVos’s confirmation.
Those groups are Club for Growth, a major supporter of conservative candidates across the country, and America Next, which was formed by then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2013.