If you haven’t read it yet, Andy Kroll has a great piece on the DeVos family in the most recent issue of Mother Jones. Of particular interest to me was the section detailing how Dick DeVos pretty much single-handedly orchestrated the passage of so-called “right-to-work” legislation last year. Here’s a clip.
…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 by Progress 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 Review in 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.
They began the anti-Prop. 2 effort in September. Polls showed that 60 percent of voters supported the measure, but DeVos and Weiser tapped their national donor networks, hauling in millions from Las Vegas gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, Texas investor Harold Simmons, and a slew of Michigan business groups. Ten DeVos family members pitched in with a combined $2 million. The DeVos-backed campaign ran hundreds of ads in the two months before the vote, claiming the measure would give unions far too much power, cost the state more than $1.6 billion, and imperil student safety by making it impossible to fire negligent teachers.
By Election Day, the two sides had spent a total of $47 million, making it the most expensive ballot measure in Michigan history. Voters defeated Prop. 2 by a 15-point margin. DeVos and Weiser wasted no time moving to the next phase of their plan…
And we know all too well what happened next. DeVos, with the help of his friends at ALEC, began pulling unprecedented amounts of corporate money into the State. And, with this money, he was able to bring in high-dollar strategists like Frank Luntz, who determined that the campaign shouldn’t be about collective bargaining, but about “freedom,” ensuring that anyone who opposed it would be seen as anti-freedom, and thus anti-American. And the ads started running endlessly. Images of American flags and rugged Michiganders demanding their freedom to represent themselves in the workplace. (There was also a good deal of fear thrown in for good measure. Several of the ads revolved around Michigan’s vulnerable school children, who, according to the voice-overs, were being put at risk due to our inability to fire unionized teachers with various drug and alcohol addictions.) It would be the largest political ad campaign ever waged in the State, and it was overwhelmingly successful. And, between that, and a good deal of arm twisting in the State House and Senate, DeVos was able to see his dream realized. (It’s well documented that DeVos threatened to run primary challengers against any Republicans who did not toe the line.) The plan that DeVos and Weiser had invested so much in had come to fruition. The perfect storm had been achieved. And the Republican endgame had been realized. All that was left was for Snyder, with a straight face, to claim on national television that his was a good thing for unions, as reporters exploded in fits of laughter.
Here’s how the Mother Jones article ends.
…By pulling off the unthinkable, DeVos and his allies have emboldened conservatives around the country to go on the offensive. Following the passage of right-to-work, DeVos has opened his playbook to lawmakers, activists, and donors nationwide who are interested in following Michigan’s lead. “As is often the case in politics generally, timing is critical,” DeVos told me. “So the lesson to others is: Be prepared. Invest in the infrastructure necessary to leverage an opportunity when it presents itself.” He says other conservatives “are hoping for an opportunity to bring freedom-to-work to their home states” and “have voiced their appreciation for the example Michigan provided.” As he told an audience at the annual conference of the conservative State Policy Network in September, “If we can do it in Michigan, you can do it anywhere.”
As much as I dislike the man and what he’s done to Michigan, we’d be foolish not to look at what DeVos has pulled off and learn from it. He was ready to act when the opportunity presented itself, and it paid off for him. Granted, it helps when you inherit a billion dollar multi-level marketing cult, and have the resources to be able to put things in motion, but I still think that we could stand to learn a thing or two from him about tenacity and preparation.
[note: The image at the top of the page comes from DickDeVos.com… I may have edited it a bit, though.]