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Betsy DeVos, winter Windsor resident, named to Cabinet

Photo: Betsy DeVos with President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

If Betsy DeVos didn’t make it back to Vero for the seasonal Windsor Club welcome-back party, she probably wished she had. The tightly cloistered community on the northern end of Vero's barrier island might have served as a buffer to the onslaught of editorials and TV news shows opining on her nomination as secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump.

While there has been much praise for DeVos’ commitment to children, the school voucher program she so strenuously supports is highly controversial, in part because it blurs the First Amendment-mandated line between church and state. Government vouchers given to poor students to use for private school tuition funnel taxpayer money to private schools, many of them religious or for-profit.

DeVos has also faced opposition for her support of charter schools. The American Teachers Federation, the union representing 1.6 million teachers, is campaigning vehemently against her Senate confirmation, its president calling her “anti-public education.” But her ideas clearly dovetail with Trump’s plan to break up what he calls a “government-run monopoly” of public education.

That vision, while seemingly new to Trump, has long been DeVos’ obsession, a commitment that will no doubt be stressed in her Senate confirmation hearings.

“Betsy has been a leader in education reform seeking increased opportunities for disadvantaged kids, and governors respect her political acumen and experience,” said Greg Brock, executive director of DeVos’ American Federation for Children, in a 2011 interview with 32963. “She brings a mix of policy and politics to make school choice effective around the U.S. Her political experience in Michigan has been a great boost to her educational reform work.”

DeVos, a billionaire from a small town near Grand Rapids, Michigan, married into the family that founded and runs Amway. She herself is an heir to the fortune her father Edgar Prince made that started with selling light-up sun visors and other auto parts. The business was sold for $1.35 billion in 1996.

Family friends may have had some influence on the young DeVos. In 1983, her father co-founded the conservative think tank Family Research Council with Gary Bauer, under-secretary of education under Ronald Reagan.

Now 58, DeVos is occasionally seen out and about in Vero, stopping in at Citrus Grillhouse for dinner or attending an Athena Society benefit at the art museum, but she spends most of her time in Windsor when she is on the island.

“We don’t really get involved in the Vero Beach social scene,” she told 32963 five years ago. “We aren’t here enough for that. But we have met wonderful folks at Windsor and are happy to be able to spend time with them in this magical place.”

She and her husband Dick, son of Amway co-founder Rick DeVos who owns the Orlando Magic basketball team, bought at Windsor 17 years ago, soon after it opened; they subsequently bought the house across the street for their son and eventually a Windsor rowhouse.

Family patriarch Rick DeVos and his wife Helen bought a Windsor home four years ago. They travel to Vero by private jet and then take a helicopter to the north barrier island. Neighbors say security is intense around their oceanfront compound, and the senior DeVos ventures out only with multiple bodyguards.

Along with the families of Dick’s three siblings, Betsy DeVos hosts the annual DeVos Family Council meetings at Windsor, along with some of the 20 staff members it takes to run the “family office,” the pooled family business and philanthropy. Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, Betsy DeVos serves as an elder in an understated megachurch, and many of the causes supported by the family are Christian-based.

Until the election results were in, it wasn’t clear the DeVos family were fans of Donald Trump. Right up through the Republican Convention, Betsy DeVos, long an advocate for conservative education, had come out strongly against Trump, backing instead – in quick succession – Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

According to one media report by the Washington Examiner, she gave the signal to Trump just before his convention speech that she needed to hear mention of charters or vouchers if he wanted her support. The night of the speech, Trump included school choice as a cause he supports.

Still, as of mid-October, Betsy and Dick DeVos were not among the four DeVos family members who donated $245,000 to a joint Trump and RNC fund to help boost Republican voter turnout in Michigan. Betsy DeVos was quoted in a Michigan paper at that time as saying she was more concerned with down-ballot races.

While DeVos’ nomination, which requires Senate approval, launches the family into the national spotlight, it’s hardly the family’s first foray into the political fray. Betsy’s husband Dick ran for governor of Michigan in 2006; despite spending $36 million of his own money, he lost to Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

And Rick DeVos Sr. was briefly named finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, an appointment that followed his large donations to the campaign of Ronald Reagan.

Betsy DeVos served as chair of the Michigan Republic Party over a span of eight years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This election cycle, according to Forbes magazine, she and her husband gave at least $2.8 million to conservative candidates and causes. Rick DeVos Sr. gave a similar sum. According to Forbes, Betsy DeVos and her husband apparently never came out publicly for Trump prior to the election.