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DeVos clan outspends UAW in 2014 Michigan election

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The wealthy DeVos clan outspent the entire United Auto Workers labor union in Michigan politics last year, as higher limits for individual contributions allowed the politically powerful west Michigan family to give more to Republican candidates than ever before.

The DeVoses donated $4.9 million to Republican candidates, GOP committees and political action committees, besting the $4.48 million the UAW spent supporting Democrats and the state Democratic Party, according to data in the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s annual report.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, highlighted the DeVos family’s outsized influence in financing the campaigns of Michigan Republicans in the release of his organization’s “Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance 2014.”

“There’s no way to escape recognition that the DeVos family was the most potent interest group in campaign spending in the 2014 election cycle,” Robinson said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “The DeVos family doesn’t have a peer as far as individual donors or as far as interest groups go.”

Super attorney Sam Bernstein’s family spent $1.97 million on Democratic candidates and causes, the second most of any wealthy Michigan family. But $1.88 million of that went toward getting Bernstein’s son, Richard, elected to the Michigan Supreme Court, records show.

Dick DeVos

Robinson’s report did not add up how much labor unions like the UAW contributed to Democratic politicians during the 2014 election cycle.

A Detroit News analysis of UAW donation data contained throughout Robinson’s report shows the union’s voluntary employee PAC gave at least $4.48 million to Democratic politicians and committees in 2013 and 2014.

There were nine DeVos family members whose contributions showed up in campaign finance records. The UAW has 134,000 active and 178,000 retirees who can contribute to the union’s PAC, a spokesman said.

GOP strategist Greg McNeilly, political adviser to the DeVos family, dismissed Robinson’s report as politically bent toward Democrats.

“The DeVos family supports participatory democracy and enjoys free speech like anyone else,” McNeilly said. “Any attempt to demonize people for participating in our political process really seems to be un-American.”

The DeVos family’s single recipient was the Michigan Republican Party, which reported $2.3 million in donations.

The UAW contributed $1.33 million to the Michigan Democratic Party’s operation. But the biggest recipient of the UAW’s contributions was the $2.8 million that ended up in the bank account of the Democratic Governors Association. The DGA spent $15.4 million trying unsuccessfully to defeat Snyder and get former Congressman Mark Schauer elected.

DeVos donations came directly from nine family members plus the family’s Alticor and Amway flagship corporations, according to the report.

Political contributions analyzed in the report do not include spending on “issue advocacy” voter education, in which DeVos organizations are involved.

In 2013, Snyder signed a law doubling Michigan’s campaign contribution limits for representatives ($500 to $1,000), senators ($1,000 to $2,000) and statewide officials like himself ($3,400 to $6,800). For political action committees, the contribution limit was doubled from $20,000 to $40,000.

Maximum contributions from DeVos family memers to Republican PACs totalled $1.16 million, according Robinson’s report.

“The old limits would have confined them to $720,000,” the report said. “Few persons or committees took advantage of the increased contribution limits and no others exercised their new freedom to give as assertively as the DeVos family.”

Some states, such as Missouri, have eliminated campaign contribution limits to end a complex web of legalized money laundering of donations to get around the limits.

“Philosophically, they’ve long believed in unlimited free speech, but believe that should include a much more robust reporting schematic than we currently see,” McNeilly said of the DeVos family favoring limitless contributions.

The Michigan network’s annual report also showed election spending in Michigan politics broke new records in 2014, as the race for governor and attorney general attracted tens of millions in spending by outside groups and the battle for the state House was the most expensive in history.

Republican Snyder’s re-election over Schauer cost both sides a combined $63.5 million, making it the second most expensive gubernatorial bout ever. Billionaire Dick DeVos’s 2006 loss to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm remains the all-time costliest at $80 million.

But the majority of the spending in the Snyder-Schauer race did not come from the candidates’ committees, but from outside groups, whose independent expenditures and television advertising accounted for $41.3 million.

Of that $41.3 million sum, $6.1 million or about 15 percent was reported in the state’s campaign finance system as the rest was spent on issue advertising by the Republican and Democratic governors associations. Those groups don’t have to report their donors and spending to the Secretary of State’s office as long as the ads don’t explicitly tell voters whom to vote for.

All told, $134 million was spent on candidate elections for state-level positions in Michigan last year, according to the report.

“The real growth area in money in politics is the non-party independent spending,” Robinson said.

Independent political groups also bought ads in the races for state Supreme Court and attorney general, bringing total spending for unreported TV ads to $42.9 million – shattering the 2010 record of $22.9 million, according to the report.

A complaint was recently filed with the Internal Revenue Service against an independent group that spent $3 million on TV ads last year aiding Attorney General Bill Schuette’s re-election.

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