Family of Betsy DeVos among Michigan’s biggest political donors

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may no longer give to campaigns but her family still does.

A look at Federal Election Commission records for this election cycle, including all of last year and this year up to the middle of this month, shows various members of the DeVos family, one of Michigan's richest, giving at least $4.9 million to federal political action committees.

And that doesn't count any state-only giving or contributions directly to candidates.

Nearly four years ago, DeVos, as she was being vetted by the U.S. Senate to become education secretary, said neither she nor her husband, Dick DeVos, would give to political campaigns, potentially robbing Republican campaigns and causes of a major source of contributions.

Turns out they didn't have to worry. And as for her husband, who is part of the family that helped found Amway, he went ahead and gave anyway, to the tune of at least $510,000.

"It's really important when a high-level official makes a commitment that they stick to their word in that regard," said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group. "Does it represent a conflict of interest? That depends on how you view our federal government (and whether officials should be nonpartisan)."

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For its analysis, the Free Press looked at individual contributions from Michigan of more than $10,000 to federally registered committees. That doesn't include limited donations to individual candidates' campaign committees but catches those to outside groups that work to defeat or elect candidates — or at least those contributions that are required to be disclosed.

It showed that among Michigan's biggest givers — a roster that includes names such as Ford, Gilbert and Moroun — the vast majority, $20.6 million out of about $28 million, went to groups working to elect Republicans.

Among them:

  • Matthew Moroun, who runs the company that owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, has contributed at least $751,000 so far, including $400,000 to President Donald Trump's Victory Fund.

  • Members of the Cotton family, which created Detroit-based Meridian Health Plan, a huge health maintenance organization with hundreds of thousands of members in Michigan and across the Midwest, have given almost $3.3 million to Republican groups, including more than $1.3 million to the Republican National Committee.

  • In west Michigan, the Haworth family, whose fortune comes from the family's furniture business, contributed nearly $1.8 million, most of which — $1.5 million — went from Dick and Ethelyn Haworth to Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative PAC that has concentrated its efforts on U.S. Senate races this cycle.

As for the DeVos family contributions, $1.2 million went to the Senate Leadership Fund, which is working to keep Republicans in majority control of the U.S. Senate and another $1 million went to America First Action, a super PAC backing Trump's reelection. Another $700,000 went to the Better Future Michigan Fund, which has been focused on helping John James in his race against U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

It's not just Republican giving

That's not to say that it was only Republican causes that were getting funds. No single contributor in the state appeared to give more than Jon Stryker of Kalamazoo, who contributed nearly $2.5 million.

His contributions included $1.2 million to the Democratic House Majority PAC and more than $1 million to the Senate Majority PAC, which is attempting to help Democrats take control of that chamber. Stryker's family founded the west Michigan medical supplies company of the same name.

As for some other well-known Michigan individuals and families, Ethan Davidson, the son of the late Pistons owner Bill Davidson, and Ethan's wife, Gretchen, have given just under $300,000 to Democratic groups, including $100,000 to Democratic nominee Joe Biden's Victory Fund. And members of the Ford family — Ford Motor director Edsel Ford II and his wife, Cynthia, — have given just over $400,000 to Democratic groups while Ford Motor's executive chairman, Bill Ford, and his wife, Lisa, gave $40,000 to the state Republican Party.

As for Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and his wife Jennifer, they gave $90,400, all to groups looking to protect the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Compuware founder Peter Karmanos and his wife, Danialle, gave $422,400, including $179,000 to the Republican National Committee.

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Since the cycle hasn't ended, these totals could go up. But Schuster noted that just because it appears deep-pocketed Michiganders gave more to Republicans doesn't mean necessarily that shows the whole picture. In some cases, groups that are required to report contributions receive donations from other groups that are not required to do so — meaning it can be all but impossible to know exactly who is contributing and how much they might be giving behind the scenes. Then there are some nonprofit groups that get involved in elections but aren't required to disclose donors at all.

And there is every reason to believe that Democrats are availing themselves of obscure funding sources as much as Republicans may be, he said.

"We are in an era when dark money has proliferated more than at any time in American political history," he said.

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Family of Betsy DeVos among Michigan’s biggest political donors