Betsy DeVos not ready to back Donald Trump

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Betsy DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chair and GOP mega donor, isn’t ready to get behind Donald Trump as she prepares to head to Cleveland next week for the party’s formal nomination of the billionaire businessman for president.

DeVos is attending the Republican National Convention as an at-large delegate for Ohio Gov. John Kasich while her wealthy and influential West Michigan family backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the primaries.

“Let’s just say that I will be a more than interested bystander at the convention,” DeVos said Wednesday in an interview with The Detroit News.

DeVos acknowledged she has some misgivings with Trump but did not elaborate on why she’s withholding her support for the party’s presumptive nominee.

“I am watching and listening with interest. I am going to be continuing to do that as we approach the convention and go through the convention next week,” DeVos said. “There have clearly been a lot of things that have been said that give me serious pause for thought. But on the other hand, when I consider the alternative, that is not attractive either.”

Trump cleared the crowded field of experienced Republican politicians in May, but DeVos is the latest Republican Party stalwart to be cool on Trump as he begins to focus on running against Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I think his selection of a runningmate is an important consideration and will certainly send an important signal, one way or another,” DeVos said.

DeVos, wife of billionaire Amway heir Dick DeVos, is a former state Republican Party chair and Republican National Committeewoman who has attended eight national conventions since 1976, when she was a “scatter blitzer” volunteer for President Gerald Ford’s campaign.

But DeVos emphasized her attendance at this year’s national convention has less to do about party politics and is more about advancing her cause of public school choice.

The American Federation of Children, a national school choice group DeVos chairs, is hosting an event Tuesday evening at Cleveland’s House of Blues featuring Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former television anchor Campbell Brown, who has become an outspoken education reform activist in recent years.

“We think that education has not been highlighted at all (in the presidential race), and we believe that the future of education has a lot to do with the economic and competitive future of our country,” DeVos said.

On Wednesday, DeVos is participating in a panel discussion on parental school choice at the Global Center for Health Innovation that is sponsored Cleveland’s national convention host committee.

The DeVoses have been influential backers of Michigan’s charter school movement and advocates of taxpayer-funded vouchers to let parents take their children to the school of their choice.

Betsy DeVos also is a board member of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter advocacy group that recently beat back attempts to create a commission in Detroit with the power to open and close charter schools.

“I think Republicans in general miss a huge opportunity … if they don’t embrace and really bring momentum to this issue in the spheres in which they have influence,” DeVos said.

The education project is actively involved in Republican primaries for seats in the Michigan House of Representatives. The organization has endorsed GOP candidates and incumbents in 43 state House races this year. Support from the project can range from an endorsement to direct campaign contributions and independent spending supporting or opposing particular candidates.

DeVos said her focus this year is more on down-ballot Republican races than the presidential contest.

“I’m not going to get all wrapped in that one office,” she said. “I’m going to be focused on what I can do to help other races down the ticket, for certain. And specifically on this issue of school choice, to do everything I can to highlight and promote it as an important issue for us to embrace.”

On the federal level, the American Federation of Children is advocating for Congress and the next president to remove strings attached to federal education funding and let Title I money be used for school vouchers.

The American Federation of Children has a bipartisan board that includes former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman — the Democratic Party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee — and Kevin Chavous, a former Democratic councilman and mayoral candidate in Washington, D.C.

The group will have a presence at the July 25-28 Democratic National Convention, though DeVos won’t be attending that gathering.

“I’m not sure I’d be all that warmly received in Philadelphia, but others from our group will,” DeVos said.

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood