Who was behind Michigan GOP’s one-two punch against LGBTQ working families?

About Mariya Strauss

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As 2015 winds to a close, Michiganders–especially working people and LGBTQ folks–are reeling from right-wing assaults on both their pocketbooks and their civil rights. I am referring to the one-two punch of new laws passed during the summer legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. These new laws effectively roll back decades of progress made by community and labor organizing in the state; at the same time, they represent dots along a disturbing trend line that people in many other states need to see more clearly in order to avoid the same fate.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan
(photo via Flickr courtesy of Michigan Municipal League)

First, the one punch: Dubbed the “death star,” HB 4052 is a state preemption, or local interference, law passed by the legislature that bans cities from enacting their own laws governing wages and benefits. (Note: although the original bill would have banned cities from passing LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances, that provision was stripped out.) Signed in June by Gov. Snyder, the new law blocks cities in Michigan from enacting living wage laws, mandating paid sick days, or passing laws on any other workplace-related issues. Such interference with local control is becoming more common. It may come as a shock to some readers that nearly all states have already done away with cities and towns’ ability to pass local gun control laws; not quite as many states have blocked local control of tobacco, e-cigarettes, and environmental regulations, but this is indeed a trend that organizers can no longer ignore. In these states, an organizing victory in a single city is at risk of being preempted by state law. (A clickable map of such laws is available here, although it may not be completely up to date.)

The second punch to hit Michiganders during this summer’s legislative session was a statewide religious freedom restoration act, or RFRA law, that awards adoption agencies the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. Though it is narrower in scope than a much broader failed RFRA bill that would have allowed any individual or business to claim the right to discriminate against LGBTQ persons because of a “sincerely held religious belief”, the adoption RFRA will have a chilling effect on LGBTQ families in the state.

With the help of a researcher based in Western Michigan, PRA looked into what groups and funders were behind this one-two punch in the Wolverine State. What we found: Although there are two separate sets of right-wing groups lobbying for the anti-local control law and the RFRA laws, they share an important common funder: the DeVos family, billionaire founders and heirs of the Amway fortune.

Although there are two separate sets of right-wing groups lobbying for the anti-local control law and the RFRA laws, they share an important common funder: the DeVos family, billionaire founders and heirs of the Amway fortune.

Michigan provides us with an instructive lesson in how the Right can deploy a multi-pronged policy strategy. In the case of the local interference “death star” bill, the Corporate Right used its corporate lobbying groups to lobby noisily for the bill. The groups that spoke in favor of the bill and are part of the public record were the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated General Contractors of Michigan, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to research by the Lansing-based Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the National Federation of Independent Business had spent $202,036 on lobbying in Michigan for the first seven months of 2015 while the US Chamber of Commerce spent $64,000 on lobbying during the same time period.

Dick and Betsy DeVos  (Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Dick and Betsy DeVos
(Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

At the same time, though, the DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund, which is run by DeVos family operative Greg McNeilly (who ran Dick DeVos’ failed 2006 campaign for governor), pushed hard behind the scenes for the local interference bill. The vote for the bill ultimately split along party lines, with a handful of Republican lawmakers opposing it in both the House and Senate. With a GOP majority, this meant the bill passed, and Governor Snyder signed it with gusto.

The newly enacted RFRA legislation would mean that a child placing agency (for adoption or foster care) could not be required to provide any services if those services conflicted with the agency’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the agency. This applies also to referrals made by the Department of Human Services for foster care management or adoption services under a contract with the department. An agency could decline such referrals. Those wanting to limit LGBTQ couples/families from adopting in Michigan have been proposing similar legislation since 2005.

This includes the DeVos family, as well as the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. The Princes, who made their fortune in auto parts manufacturing, are another politically active ultra-wealthy Michigan family. One of their sons is Erik Prince, founder of the defense contractor/security firm Blackwater. And with Betsy DeVos as a daughter, the political alliance between the two families remains strong.

Several members of the two committees that helped write the adoption RFRA laws received contributions from individuals or organizations that are hostile towards LGBTQ rights and equality.

Several members of the two committees that helped write the adoption RFRA laws received contributions from individuals or organizations that are hostile towards LGBTQ rights and equality. Rep. Kathy Crawford and Senator Tom Casperson both received $9,000 in support from the DeVos family, and Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R), who introduced HB 4188, received $8,100 from the DeVos Family, according to research by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. This may not be a shock to those from Michigan, who know the DeVoses are the most politically active donors in the state in recent years. But the DeVoses also funded some of the groups, such as Michigan’s largest adoption agency Bethany Christian Services, that lobbied hard for the adoption RFRA: the most recent 990 documents (2013) for the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation show that they contributed $250,000 to Bethany Christian Services. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation provided $25,000 to Bethany in 2013.

Another group that lobbied for the adoption RFRA was Michigan Family Forum, an affiliate of CitizenLink, the state policy network of the Family Research Council. Michigan Family Forum used its longstanding connections to Christian Right politicians and networks across the state to mobilize voters and lawmakers to support this set of bills. Major donors to the Michigan Family Forum in recent years include the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, which contributed $15,000 in 2014.

The DeVoses, and to a lesser extent the Princes, have their thumb on the scales of public policy in Michigan. But what does this mean for other states? Where else are these ultra-wealthy political donor families pushing to stop towns and cities from exercising their democratic right to local control? And where else might they be trying to stop LGBTQ people from gaining more human and civil rights? PRA is looking into these and other questions; watch this space for more.

Jeff Smith contributed research and writing to this report.

Mariya Strauss is PRA's former economic justice researcher and a former guest editor for The Public Eye magazine. A Maryland-based freelance writer, her investigative journalism and commentary have been published in The Nation, at the GlobalComment blog, and The Public Eye magazine, among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @mariyastrauss.