DeVos (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
Betsy DeVos, the ultimate establishment Republican, is calling out the GOP’s national leadership for failing to stand up to “intolerance and insensitivity” within the party.
DeVos, in lodging her complaints this week, joins a growing number of traditional Republicans dismayed that the party is being jerked to the extreme by a small-but-noisy element obsessed with divisive issues.
What’s driving the former Republican National Committeewoman and state party chair to speak up are the serial outbursts of Dave Agema, who has drawn fire for his hateful rants against gays and Muslim Americans.
“I couldn’t stand by and hold my tongue,” says DeVos, whose husband, Dick, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006.
Agema is one of two current GOP national committee members from Michigan and, like DeVos, is from the Grand Rapids area. DeVos says she left messages with Agema this week “to encourage him to do the right thing. He should resign his position as national committeeman.”
When he didn’t respond, she called Reince Priebus, chairman of the national party, asking him to either figure out a way to dump Agema or marginalize him to make it clear the party does not support his positions.
“He has a right to express his ideas and opinions, but he also has a responsibility to the party” DeVos says. “He has damaged his position and his party. He reflects badly on Republicans and on Michigan.”
So far, there’s been no commitment from Priebus, she says, but discussions are ongoing.
DeVos is troubled by more than just than a few ignorant statements by a bigot. She is clearly frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of GOP leaders to reclaim the party from those motivated by hate and prejudice.
She describes herself as “disillusioned and disgusted” that Republicans like Agema have been allowed to help guide the party.
“Leaders have a responsibility to create an inclusive, welcoming party, not to exclude,” she says. “What’s going on is cause for concern about our future prospects as a party and our ability to bring people around to our point of view and long-term agenda. We are driving people away who might otherwise support what we stand for.”
That DeVos is voicing her distress is significant. The DeVos family not only has been among the most generous and reliable GOP funders, both at the state and national levels, but its members have also sat at the party’s leadership table for decades. The party’s national headquarters includes an Amway Communications Center, named for the company her father-in-law co-founded.
Although no overt threat was made to withdraw financial support, the risk to the GOP is certainly implicit.
“The expectation of leaders in a party is to stand up in situations like this,” she says. “Failing to do so will have consequences.”
While Dick DeVos was a primary force behind passage of the right-to-work law in Michigan in 2012, she has pulled back from visible involvement in campaigns because of the direction of the party.
“I’ve stayed out of partisan politics the last few years for this reason,” she says.
DeVos is convinced a majority of Republicans feel as she does about the pull to the extremes on issues such as gay rights. But that tiny faction is gaining disproportionate influence.
“There is a fear, untested and unfounded, that standing up to a small minority in the party will have a tremendous backlash,” she says. “Instead, I believe they are going to continue to drive more and more people away from our party and our viewpoints.”
There is no mechanism in Michigan party rules to remove Agema, unless he fails to support the Republican presidential nominee. Still, DeVos believes pressure can be applied, and says state party leaders have been “distressingly quiet” about Agema. (Just after our interview, Gov. Rick Snyder opened his state of the state address with a call for civility and tolerance clearly aimed at Agema.)
DeVos is urging the party to return to its roots and focus its message on sound economic policy and other efforts to improve the American quality of life. Her passion is ensuring all children have access to a quality education, and that’s where she’s been devoting her energy.
The stand Betsy DeVos is taking will surprise some. She is a classic conservative, and fairly or not has sometimes been linked to the religious right.
But she recognizes that intolerance and exclusion are bad for Republicans and bad for America.
If more of the people who write the checks that keep the GOP in business stand beside her, the Republican Party will have to change course or dwindle away.
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.