MACKINAC ISLAND — Michigan businesswoman, political megadonor and former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos implicitly criticized the GOP's ongoing capture by former President Donald Trump in a Saturday address to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
DeVos told attendees at the biennial conference on Mackinac Island she worries that "principles have been overtaken by personalities" in today's political environment.
Though personalities can be important to point the party toward its policies, "ours is not a movement dependent on any one person," DeVos said.
"Politics now are so often about people, not the policies that impact lives directly."
It appeared to be a rare GOP acknowledgement and criticism of what amounts to something close to a cult of personality surrounding Trump — who was defeated in November after one term in office — for many Republican activists.
The Mackinac conference is often a testing ground for prospective GOP presidential candidates, but any such ambitions have been severely muted while many Republicans wait for a Trump announcement on his 2024 plans.
DeVos, who served as education secretary under Trump, was not at all veiled in her criticism of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.
She compared her time in Washington, D.C., to a trip to the dentist, saying it was useful but she was glad when it was over. But one of the bright points, DeVos said, was that she "didn't have to live under the thumb of that woman from Michigan," a reference to Whitmer, and her "mind-boggling" actions during the pandemic that closed schools and businesses.
DeVos — a champion of greater school choice through charter schools and proponent of public funding for parochial schools, which is prohibited under the Michigan Constitution — said educational freedom is a great issue for the Republican Party and Michigan's constitutional ban on public dollars supporting private schools "belongs on the ash heap of history."
"Education is about students, not systems," DeVos said. Education funding "should be tied to students, not systems and buildings."
She also addressed the last GOP Mackinac conference, in 2019, while serving in Trump's cabinet.
DeVos and her west Michigan family have contributed tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes, though DeVos paused her political donations while serving as education secretary.
She is married to Dick DeVos, a billionaire who headed the Amway company founded by his father and who was the Republican candidate for governor in 2006. Betsy DeVos, who grew up in Holland, Michigan, was already wealthy when she married DeVos. Her father, Edgar Prince, was a billionaire auto parts supplier.
DeVos served as Republican National Committeewoman for Michigan from 1992 to 1997 and as chair of the Michigan Republican Party from 1996 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2004