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Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan's Plan to Defund the Left

They beat Big Labor in its own backyard. Next up: your state?

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.
 

DESPITE THE DEFEAT of Prop. 2, the unions believed all was not lost. Most Republican lawmakers seemed to have no stomach for another battle with organized labor. Days after the November elections, Mike Jackson, the carpenters' union head, dined in Lansing with a handful of Republican state senators who assured him they didn't support right-to-work. Other Republicans worried that a right-to-work push could lead to recalls. "At the time, I thought it was the dumbest thing we could've done politically," says one GOP legislative aide.

In public, Snyder insisted that right-to-work was still not on his agenda. Privately, his aides met with labor and suggested that concessions on other issues would keep the bill off the table. All the while, though, DeVos and his team were furiously whipping the vote. In the weeks before the start of the lame-duck session, DeVos personally called dozens of state lawmakers, pledging his support if the unions threatened recalls or primary challenges.

A week before the lame duck began, on November 20, 2012, DeVos and Weiser met with members of the Republican leadership, business bigwigs, and the top legislative aide to Gov. Snyder to pitch their plan. Snyder and the GOP leadership were still queasy, fearing a Wisconsin-style revolt; where the protesters in Madison had ultimately failed, in Michigan, a labor stronghold, they just might prevail. "There was all this hemming and hawing," says one attendee.

"What do you guys need to hear?" DeVos asked. "What can we do to help?"

A plan, came the reply. A plan showing that they wouldn't be committing political suicide.

McNeilly, DeVos' political adviser, took the floor. He had recently formed a nonprofit group called the Michigan Freedom Fund. It planned to raise millions from the DeVos family and other donors. McNeilly's pollster was testing DeVos' "freedom-to-work" message statewide. And the group was plotting a statewide ad blitz to give air cover to Republican lawmakers. By the time McNeilly finished talking, the mood in the room had shifted from apprehensive to optimistic. "Sitting around that table we felt like a rag-tag grouping of Davids, in the historic Biblical story," DeVos told me in an email. "But we left the table committed to doing our best to change Michigan's future for the better."

By now it was down to a few Republicans on the fence, and the heavy artillery came in. According to labor lobbyists and House and Senate Republican staffers, several undecided GOP lawmakers received threats of primary challenges from Team DeVos if they opposed right-to-work. One House Republican told me that Weiser called him up to suggest he'd have difficulties in the future if he voted no. The message, according to another wavering lawmaker's aide, was clear: "We will run you out of town."

As DeVos and his political consultants plotted to cripple Michigan's unions, he says they "felt like a rag-tag grouping of Davids, in the historic Biblical story."

In early December, the Michigan Freedom Fund unleashed its freedom-to-work ad campaign. The group also enlisted GOP pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz to help craft a message "bible" that was distributed to every Republican state lawmaker for use during the right-to-work push; it included prepackaged answers to potential questions from constituents and reporters. ("Q. Isn't this really just about trying to break unions? A. Freedom-to-work is about restoring workplace fairness and equality, not curtailing unions.") The Freedom Fund even brought Luntz to Lansing to rally lawmakers. This is your chance to make history, Luntz exhorted them. It's now or never.

On December 6, Snyder shocked the state by announcing that lawmakers would vote on right-to-work that day and that he would sign the legislation when it got to his desk. DeVos worked the phones all the way to the end, even calling several lawmakers on their cellphones as they prepared to cast their votes.

The state legislators who led the right-to-work fight say it was the strategy crafted by DeVos and his allies that convinced hesitant Republicans, not least of them the governor himself, to pull off what DeVos called "the largest shift in public policy in Michigan in a generation."

"[Snyder] needed to see the win plan," recalled Rep. Mike Shirkey—it was what swayed him from "'not on my agenda right now' to 'it just moved to the agenda.'"
 

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2013, hundreds of Republican lawmakers, political operatives, and activists gathered at picturesque Mackinac Island in northern Michigan for the state party's biannual leadership conference. The gathering is always held at the Grand Hotel, an extravagant, 126-year-old landmark with sweeping views of Lake Huron. The 2013 guest list was packed with prominent names and 2016 hopefuls: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Karl Rove all had keynote speaking slots.

One of the main attractions was a Saturday morning panel on the right-to-work victory. The panelists included DeVos adviser Greg McNeilly and two Republican lawmakers who were instrumental in the bill's passage. Dick and Betsy DeVos watched from the front row.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck told the crowd that he'd spoken with allies in Illinois, Missouri, and New Hampshire who were interested in passing right-to-work bills of their own. But, he added, conservatives in those states were waiting to see if Michigan Republicans could hold on to their law—and their majority—in 2014. "If we demonstrate that we can defend the high ground, just like Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, you give courage pills to every state legislator and every state legislature across the country."

"This is the election that seals the deal," said McNeilly. With a GOP victory, "freedom-to-work becomes the new norm."

DeVos and his allies had long since started working toward that goal. Their Michigan Freedom Fund is now a conglomerate of political vehicles, including a charitable foundation, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, and a 527 political committee. "We're not the Chamber of Commerce; we're not the Republican Party," he says. The groups, McNeilly notes, will steer clear of social issues like abortion and gay rights, and instead promote a "freedom agenda" of lowering taxes, slashing regulations, and privatizing public education. The fund will recruit and groom candidates and campaign to send those politicians to Lansing.

The ambitious project is more than a state-level power play: DeVos is part of a wave of superwealthy political activists—think the Koch brothers on the right, the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer on the left—who are operating outside the traditional party system. They are financing their own political infrastructure and setting their own agenda.

And it seems to be working. 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."

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