In 1991 a plan was publicly explored to build a multi-use venue in Grand Rapids for sporting events and conventions arena north of the city center.
At the time, Dick DeVos was rising in the ranks toward a position as CEO of his family’s company, Amway Corp. He started making calls to lobby against the idea of constructing the venue.
DeVos was concerned that the venue would be a repeat of a similar project that damaged the city of Detroit. In the 1970s two professional sports teams – the Lions and the Pistons – left Detroit amid the construction of the Pontiac Silverdome and Palace of Auburn Hills. DeVos didn’t want Grand Rapids to make the same mistake.
His lobbying activities led to the creation of a group called Grand Action. Grand Action brought together business leaders who had been involved in high-profile construction projects like Michigan State University’s medical school, the DeVos Performance Hall, and Grand Rapids City Market. Each of the high profile projects had grown the skyline of the city of Grand Rapids, and the group’s major players influenced the future of the project.
It’s this same style of influence and advocacy that Dick and Betsy DeVos – both heirs to separate family fortunes – have been actively working toward for decades. The couple are considered “mega-donors” for the GOP. The cash infusions they’ve provided have fueled significant changes in labor and education laws.
Betsy DeVos successfully catalyzed the expansion of charter schools. Dick DeVos was the driving force behind a law that transformed Michigan – a state known for organized labor – into a right-to-work state. Their influence has been strong in GOP causes, but it also extends to other issues important to the DeVoses.
A $12.5 million gift from the Betsy and Dick DeVos was the primary donation that made possible the construction of a Spectrum Health System children’s hospital named after Helen DeVos, Dick’s mother. Dick DeVos founded a charter school at Grand Rapids International Airport specialized in aviation education.
The couple shares a focus on advocacy supporting children’s health and education. They’ve used their considerable personal fortunes and political influence to drive these initiatives forward. They’ve also faced challenges along the way.
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Dick DeVos ran for governor in 2006 and was defeated by the incumbent governor, Jennifer Granholm. The couple sponsored a constitutional amendment to provide tax-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools that was voted down in 2000.
They haven’t allowed the setbacks to deter them from their philanthropic and policy goals. For example, after defeat in 2000, they reprioritized geo-targeted advocacy for school voucher programs in specific regions of the country.
Their support of GOP initiatives and championing voucher programs and charter schools was a key factor cited by President Donald Trump when he appointed Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her narrow Senate confirmation into the position has launched school voucher programs and charter schools into the national spotlight again.