When hundreds of protesters congregated on the steps of the Michigan state capitol building last week, snarling local ambulances in traffic and handing out candy to children with ungloved hands, it was with the organizational assistance of a dark money group with close ties with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Now, the governor is calling on the cabinet official and fellow Michigander to condemn the group’s open violation of social distancing guidelines during a pandemic.
“This group is funded in large part by the DeVos family,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told reporters in a press briefing last week. “And I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor.”
But DeVos, so far, is staying mum—despite having made public statements urging Americans to follow stay-at-home guidelines for the sake of public safety, and being directly named by the governor at the center of the group’s ire.
Protest movements against statewide stay-at-home orders—and in support of President Donald Trump—are growing more prominent across the country as the coronavirus outbreak in the United States enters its third month, even though an increasing majority of Americans say that the orders are necessary and that Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been both slow and bungled.
Most of the protests can be traced back to “Operation Gridlock,” a protest in Lansing, Michigan, that urged conservatives frustrated with the aggressive social-distancing executive order signed by Whitmer to circle the complex in their cars and cause an intentional traffic jam. Michigan, which is the epicenter of the outbreak in the Midwest and has lost nearly 2,400 people to the virus, has implemented stiff stay-at-home orders to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus that banned interstate travel, closed garden stores and halted motor boating.
The protest—which ultimately violated the president’s own social distancing guidelines and, according to Whitmer, blocked access to a level-one trauma center—was organized last week by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, the latter of which has long-established connections with the wealthy DeVos family. The group, styles itself as the “premiere conservative advocacy organization in Michigan” and which had previously advocated for “right-to-work” legislation, was founded by Greg McNeilly, a former executive director of the state Republican party and currently the chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, the family office that manages a portion of DeVos’ personal fortune and that of her husband.
As a 501(c)(4), the Michigan Freedom Fund is not obligated to disclose its donors or the amount of money they contribute, but has deep pockets and a willingness to dig in on conservative pet projects in the state. In 2018, the group spent more than $1.2 million advocating against Proposal 2, which would have changed the state constitution to allow for an independent commission to draw congressional districts in the state.
Whitmer, citing those connections, called on DeVos to disavow the group’s actions and to encourage participants in future actions to “stay home and be safe.”
As secretary of education, DeVos has encouraged Americans to follow social distancing guidelines against leaving home, unnecessary interstate travel and congregating in large groups—guidelines that have been increasingly flouted by those participating in protests like the one organized by the Michigan Freedom Fund.
The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment regarding whether DeVos had any guidance for parents thinking of including their school-aged children in their protest plans, but a family spokesperson told The Daily Beast that while the DeVos’ have not provided any funds for the protest, they understand the frustration that prompted the event.
“As elements of the governor’s top-down approach appear to go beyond public safety, Michigan deserves competent governance—not baseless attacks,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Another wealthy conservative backer of the Michigan Freedom Fund told The Daily Beast that the amount of money spent on advertising the event—$250 for sponsored Facebook posts, according to the group—is “infinitesimal” in the grand scheme of dark money in politics.
“There were thousands of cars there, according to state police—there were a few hundred people who disregarded the organizers’ directions and were not necessarily social distancing,” said Ron Weiser, a Michigan philanthropist and former chair of the state Republican Party who has supported the Michigan Freedom Fund in the past.
In the scheme of things, Weiser added—with the fund having spent millions in past campaigns—a $250 sponsored post on Facebook is, he felt, barely worth mentioning.
“I mean, why not talk to me about picking up change next to a parking meter?” Weiser said.
Weiser, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush, told The Daily Beast that any government official would be barred from being involved with funding or organizing an event like “Operation Gridlock,” and said that Whitmer’s criticism was clearly political.
“Governor Whitmer said what she should because it’s political and, as you well know, she’s auditioning to become vice president,” Weiser said, referring to Whitmer’s inclusion on former Vice President Joe Biden’s short list of potential running mates in the 2020 general election. “So she would attack anybody in the administration, if she has the opportunity.
Whitmer’s office has deflected that speculation, saying that she is “flattered” by Biden’s consideration but that she is currently focused on slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan.
The protest’s organizers have echoed that dismissal. McNeilly, who is extremely active online, tweeted in response that “clearly she remains misinformed and disconnected with reality. Sad and beneath her....well, maybe not.”
Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, told a local Fox affiliate that Whitmer’s “wild claim” was false.
“I think the Conservative Coalition and the thousands of people who have signed on to that group are offended by that,” Daunt said, “as they should be.”
The governor’s office, which pointed out that it had received more requests for comment about the protest than the number of people who showed up on the Capitol’s footsteps, said that the governor understands the frustration of those protesting—within limits.
“We recognize that some people are angry and frustrated, and that’s okay,” said Bobby Leddy, the governor’s spokesperson. “We just ask those who choose to protest these orders to do so in a manner that doesn’t put their health or the health of our first responders at risk.”