How Dick DeVos made Michigan a right-to-work state


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… I may have edited it a bit, though.]

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  1. Toad Hall
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    It must be nice to inherit a pyramid scheme.

  2. Posted January 27, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I always get the idea that Republicans can (or think they can) pass just about anything they want. It’s interesting that they would have ever had doubts that this would have passed.

  3. Stupid Hick
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    “…the section detailing how Dick DeVos pretty much single-handedly orchestrated the passage of so-called “right-to-work” legislation last year”.

    In which I was startled to read:

    “…polls showed nearly 70 percent support for right-to-work”

    Single-handedly?! That’s a huge majority. I was unaware of how solidly anti-labor the state has become. It’s a shame, but it seems Michigan got what it wanted. Anyone who stays deserves what they get.

  4. anonymous
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Had he not been born a DeVos, he’d be an angry middle school social studies teacher. Probably the kind who drinks too much and puts our kids in danger.

  5. Aruna
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Had he not been born a DeVos, he’d be an angry middle school social studies teacher. Probably the kind who drinks too much and puts our kids in danger.

    Then loses his job, runs a reindeer farm and after a ridiculous turn of events gets elected to congress.

  6. interwebz
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

  7. tommy
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The real prize for the DeVos’ is destroying public schools altogether and to make vouchers and privatization commonplace. Weakening the MEA is a key first step to this. Breaking the UAW was smal potatoes. Similar to privatizing prisons, there is money to be made with school tax dollars. All for the good of the children, of course, because these rich motherfuckers always have the interests of the public at large in mind.

  8. Meta
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    The Koch brothers are still spending in Michigan.

    From yesterday’s New York TImes.

    Only a few weeks into this midterm election year, the right-wing political zeppelin is fully inflated with secret cash and is firing malicious falsehoods at supporters of health care reform.

    As Carl Hulse of The Times reported recently, Democrats have been staggered by a $20 million advertising blitz produced by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group organized and financed by the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists. The ads take aim at House and Senate candidates for re-election who have supported the health law, and blame them for the hyped-up problems with the law’s rollout that now seem to be the sole plank in this year’s Republican platform.

    In one typical example, the group’s ad against Representative Gary Peters of Michigan, a Democrat who is running for an open Senate seat, is full of distortions and lies. It accuses Mr. Peters of lying when he said the law bars cancellations of insurance policies. Mr. Peters happened to be right, as millions of people who once faced losing all insurance after they got sick now appreciate. The 225,000 Michigan residents who the ad said received “cancellation notices” were actually told that they could change to a better policy; they were not told they could no longer have insurance, as the ad implies. And though the ad said health care costs are “skyrocketing,” national spending on health care is now growing at the slowest pace ever recorded, in part because of the reform law.

    Democrats intend to counter this campaign with the facts, but few of the candidates have the money to do so now. As a result, the campaign is taking a serious political toll, increasing the chances that Republicans who support a repeal of the law will win back the Senate majority this fall.

    Naturally, Democrats are using the campaign to increase their own fund-raising, begging donors to give unlimited amounts to left-leaning super PACs and advocacy groups. But it is unlikely that they will be able to match the resources or the cunning of the Kochs, who are using vast pools of money earned through corporate revenues to build a network unrivaled in complexity and secrecy. This weekend, they are bringing together some of the biggest Republican bank accounts at a resort in Palm Springs, Calif., to collect money and plan this year’s strategy.

    As Politico described it on Friday, they have already set up an operation so sophisticated it rivals “even the official Republican Party in its ability to shape policy debates and elections.” Its components include a political consulting firm to recruit, train and support like-minded antigovernment candidates, which will be active in the congressional primaries. There is also a center that provides technology and administrative services to right-wing groups and candidates, an office that compiles and analyzes voter data and a youth advocacy group.

    Read more:

  9. Knox
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Makes his money from gullible people who believe that they can get rich convincing others to sell light bulbs , soap and makeup. Men like this should not be calling the shots. Get the fucking money out if politics.

  10. EOS
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the AFP is still spending in Michigan. There’s an open bar at the State of the Union viewing party tomorrow. I think there’s a free shot for every lie Obama tells.

  11. Packer
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I still tend to blame liberal apathy more than conservative ignorance.

  12. Posted January 27, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    These are interesting comments.

  13. double anonymous
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Can someone tell me how Amway works? When you sign up, are you expected to buy marketing materials from the company, etc.? Just how much in debt is someone likely to go once they determine that they want to sign up and become an Amway distributor? And how many people drop out within the first year?

  14. maryd
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I just donated to the Dems after reading EOS and I will drink to every Obama success and skip the Repub response.

  15. T.
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I hated that it happened, but I’ll admit that I took some pleasure in seeing Snyder cave in to DeVos like a little bitch. One Tough Nerd, my ass.

  16. Kim
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Two things.

    1. A Mother Jones subscription is only $12 a year and makes as great gift.

    2. The Kochs’ coalition of tax exempt groups spent more money in the 2012 election than all of the candidates combined in the 2000 presidential election.

  17. Posted January 28, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    “I just donated to the Dems after reading EOS and I will drink to every Obama success and skip the Repub response.”

    I make it a point to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds whenever I see an annoying post from EOS.

  18. maryd
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Peter…you were my inspiration

  19. anonymous
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Peter, you are the wind beneath my wings.

  20. EOS
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Joke’s on you. Peter can’t afford healthcare for his family without taxpayer subsidies. He not donating to any charity.

  21. maryd
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Sorry EOS it is no joking matter…our itty bitty donations compared with the dark money providers…I’m not laughing just doing my tiny bit.

  22. EOS
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    So why aren’t you equally offended by George Soros, Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates? The Democrats have no shortage of dark money providers themselves.

  23. Posted January 29, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    “Joke’s on you. Peter can’t afford healthcare for his family without taxpayer subsidies. He not donating to any charity.”

    Wow. Simply.. wow.

  24. JR Escobar
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Amway is 52 to get in and 52 a year… well worth my 20% discount I get from Sprint on my five lines… spend 52 to save 360 a year… no brainer… they dont make money off you getting in, they reward customer loyalty when you buy from them/yourself… not everyone is going to be a rock star but my 400 extra a month sure helps… from places I already shop… apple, best buy, and stuff I already buy… energy drinks, vitamins, cleaners, shampoo… educate a few other people and get them to change their buying habits… get rewarded for it with money… speedy does it, footlocker, any company rewards loyalty now days… whats so cult about that… you are giving money to walk mart or Meijer when u shop there right… why not buy from yourself… you should see the bonus money this company dishes out… but you won’t understand… ill stop band say hi from my free cruise to the Bahamas on amways dime in feb…

One Trackback

  1. […] important than a snorkel, though, he’s also got the backing of wealthy conservatives like Dick DeVos, who appreciate his willingness to toe the line on everything from right-to-work to rape insurance. […]

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