If Donald Trump really wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington, choosing billionaire Michigan GOP activist Betsy DeVos to be education secretary may not be such a bad idea after all; she’s a political operator who has made it her life’s mission to weaken public education, with a proven track record of undermining stable systems. If you want to drown government in the tub, first you need to get your assassin through the bathroom door.
For years DeVos been a high profile proponent of charter schools in her home state, and critics say Michigan’s education system hasn’t fared well for it, with many of the charter schools performing terribly even as they divert resources from the larger system. The only thing that has gotten more attention than her agenda is her tactics. A former head of the state Republican Party and a shrewd political operator, she’s been more than willing to use her vast family fortune, estimated at $5.1 billion, to achieve her ends, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support pro-charter politicians — or punish those who oppose her.
But shoveling money into a race — even if you’re using a backhoe — is of limited value. The effects may not last past the next election cycle. So for decades, DeVos and her family foundation have pursued far wider-reaching and longer-lasting changes by helping systematically weaken the barriers that keep money from flooding American politics. And they’ve been very successful.
“I view Betsy DeVos as waging a decades-long war on democracy and campaign finance reform,” says Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at the nonprofit Common Cause. With the help of her family’s bankroll, DeVos has supported a handful of organizations that have slowly but effectively chipped away at the campaign finance regulation system, opening elections up ever more to moneyed interests just like her.
That support helped lead to the infamous Citizens United ruling, which bulldozed the last of the dams keeping corporate cash out of elections. “In a very real sense,” says Ryan, “it’s fair to refer to Betsy DeVos as the godmother of the Citizens United decision.”
How DeVos came to contribute, at least indirectly, to one of the most destructive Supreme Court rulings in a generation takes a little unpacking. The story begins with a lawyer named Jim Bopp, a soft-spoken, genial Midwesterner who has probably done more to unravel campaign finance law than any other individual in America.
It was Bopp who initiated the Citizens United case, which upended the campaign finance landscape in 2010, eliminating most limits on corporate giving, after a group of politically motivated filmmakers sued for the right to distribute a feature-length attack ad on Hillary Clinton. He’s litigated hundreds of other cases at all levels of government, including landmark rulings like McCutcheon v. FEC and FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, which Paul describes as a “precursor” to Citizens United. (The Wisconsin decision likewise dealt with corporate campaign spending, loosening rules on when it can be prohibited; Citizens United essentially obliterated them.) Taken together, the cases Bopp devised have gone a long way toward dismantling the spending limits established under the landmark McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002.
Much of Bopp’s litigation stems from a nonprofit that he effectively controls called the James Madison Center for Free Speech. The organization seeks out and pursues a slew of potential test cases in far-flung parts of the country, cases that turn on minute points of campaign finance law and, Bopp hopes, will serve as a basis to invalidate the last vestiges of the campaign finance regulation system. And though the Madison Center be but little — revenues rarely exceed $100,000 per year — it is fierce, and has played an important role in Bopp’s strategy over the years. In fact, it’s hard to separate the center from Bopp’s firm at all; the two entities share an address and phone number, and almost all of the center’s revenue flows to Bopp’s firm, which means that the center, for all intents and purposes, underwrites his activities.
From at least 2002 — the earliest year for which tax records are available — to 2013, DeVos served as a member of the Madison Center’s governing board, records show. Her family charity, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, has also provided at least $70,000 to the organization over the years. (Her support has found its way to other groups with similar priorities, such as the Center for Competitive Politics and the Institute for Justice.) In 2002, the foundation’s grant of $35,000 amounted to about 17 percent of the Madison Center’s operating budget. Bopp declined to comment for this story, and questions directed to DeVos through representatives were not returned.
Bopp is a true believer, and his view of campaign spending is rigorously consistent, if less than compelling to progressive ears. Money is speech; speech cannot be limited; therefore, money cannot be limited. He views campaign spending caps and other forms of regulation not as a way to stave off corruption, but as a noxious curtailment of the First Amendment.
DeVos seems to share his contempt for campaign finance laws. When her political action committee All Children Matter ran afoul of Ohio campaign regulations in 2008, drawing a record $5.3 million fine, she simply shuttered the organization. The fine is still outstanding, and as her confirmation hearing looms this week, some Democratic senators are calling on her to pay it off before she can be considered.
It seems unlikely that she will have a change of heart, however. In a 1997 op-ed, DeVos was transparent about her view of money in politics. As reprinted by the Center for Public Integrity, DeVos wrote, “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party…I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point.”