Several years ago, billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos wrote that she’d “decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence.” Instead, she and her family would concede the point: “We expect a return on our investment.”
DeVos, whose family has given as much as $200 million to the Republican Party, collected her return on Tuesday, when the Senate voted—barely—to confirm her as secretary of education. With two Republican senators splitting with their party, the Senate deadlocked at 50-50, and Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of DeVos. Of the 50 senators who voted to confirm her, nearly half have received money from her or her family. (And eight, by the way, are up for reelection in 2018.)
DeVos provoked a backlash unprecedented for an education-secretary nominee. As the vote neared, Senate offices received 1.5 million calls each day opposing her, according to the Los Angeles Times. Constituents showed up to protest en masse at senators’ offices across the country, from Omaha to Anchorage. The night before the vote, Democrats spoke against her on the Senate floor in a 24-hour streak. Saturday Night Live spoofed her. And while teachers unions and other public education advocates organized much of the pushback, even some charter school supporters, including her fellow billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, joined the public opposition.
There were several reasons for the outcry. DeVos was truly an exceptional nominee, having no experience in education outside of her advocacy for privatized education, which she’s acknowledged is religiously motivated. She made her own inexperience obvious in her confirmation hearing, appearing flagrantly unprepared and making a number of flubs that went viral online. (In a statement after the vote, Senator Al Franken called DeVos “the most incompetent cabinet-level appointee” he’d ever seen.) Her tangle of financial investments raised red flags for ethics watchdogs. And her unwillingness to offer even tepid support for traditional public schools put off residents of rural areas, where disinvestment would be particularly devastating.