The Gop Way Is The Amway Way

Its founders are fervent pillars of the party. Too fervent?

Is there a danger Bob Dole won't get the television exposure he needs during the Republican National Convention? Amway Corp. says yes. So the direct-sales behemoth put up $1.3 million to help the GOP broadcast its own in-house coverage of the San Diego convention on Pat Robertson's cable-TV channel. A blatant paid-for plug for Candidate Dole? "We think of it more as a public service," says Amway President Richard M. "Dick" DeVos Jr.

It's the kind of partisan public service that privately held Amway and its owners have provided Republicans for years--and one that has Democrats crying foul. At the request of the GOP, Amway gave the money to the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, which bought the TV time. Democrats see that as a ploy to avoid election laws. "It is illegal for corporations to pay for what is, in essence, a Republican commercial," says David Eichenbaum, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, which plans to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission.

GOSPEL. It would take a lot more than opposition outrage, however, to deter Amway and its conservative founding families from playing politics. Partners Richard M. DeVos, Dick's father, and Jay Van Andel have thrown their considerable fortunes and political muscle behind GOP luminaries going back to Gerald Ford. Since 1988, figures Common Cause, the political watchdog group, Amway and its owners have poured $3.3 million in soft money gifts into GOP coffers, including $2.5 million in 1994 to launch the party's TV operation. Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, have both been courted as U.S. Senate candidates in Amway's home state of Michigan (the company is based in Grand Rapids), where they count Governor John Engler as a close friend and political ally. Even Amway's army of independent distributors is in on the act: Five serve in Congress and act as an informal "Amway caucus" echoing the company's gospel of free enterprise and free trade.

Amway's clout keeps growing. With the Republican Revolution in danger of faltering, the DeVoses helped out again on July 18. Richard DeVos, who was RNC finance chairman under President Reagan, was the honored guest at a GOP fundraiser in Detroit that netted $3 million. "We're very close to the RNC," says John Gartland, Amway's director of governmental affairs in Washington. Featured speaker at the event: Bob Dole.

For all their power, Amway's founders come from humble roots. Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel, now both retired from Amway, started the company out of a basement in the western Michigan hamlet of Ada in 1959. The pair eventually built a worldwide organization of independent distributors of 5,000 Amway-made and branded products. An estimated 2.5 million people sell Amway goods in 76 countries. Annual global sales now top $6.3 billion.

NO PYRAMID. Along the way, Amway has provoked considerable controversy. Under its system, distributors recruit others into the fold to sell products ranging from soap to cookware, cosmetics to smoke detectors, vitamins to encyclopedias. The "up-line" distributors collect commissions on what their recruits peddle. In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission concluded a lengthy investigation by ruling that Amway's organization was not an illegal "pyramid" scheme, as critics had charged. But the scandals didn't end. In the 1980s, Amway pleaded guilty to defrauding Canada by undervaluing products it imported there. It paid $58 million in fines and civil penalties.

Such pratfalls haven't slowed the spread of the founding families' influence in U.S. conservative circles. Jay Van Andel is a longtime trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Richard DeVos is active in the Council for National Policy, a group that includes such Reaganites as Edwin Meese. "The Amway families are conservative versions of the Rockefellers, but they do it with a fervor that makes some people nervous," says one ex-Amway staffer.

The families' zeal has not subsided as a new generation has come to the fore. Day-to-day management now is handled by Dick DeVos and Van Andel's eldest son, Steve. The company's policy board includes six other Van Andel and DeVos children. The political torch is carried mainly by Dick DeVos, a former member of Michigan's state board of education, and Betsy DeVos, who chairs the Michigan Republican Party and serves as national Republican committeewoman from the state.

Dick DeVos chafes at the suggestion that the families--and Amway--somehow exert undue influence in GOP circles. "We get shot at because we stand up and are counted," he says. "We have something we believe in, and we don't run for cover if we're criticized."

But critics say the company amounts to an unhealthy political juggernaut. It briefs the five distributors that serve in Congress on issues important to the company. A recent article in the leftist magazine Mother Jones said that Representative Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), an Amway caucus member, may have received $295,000 in campaign contributions from Amway distributors in her successful run for Congress in 1994. Myrick dismisses the article as "filled with inaccuracies" but won't comment further.

Republican leaders also are mum on Amway's TV donation. Dick DeVos calls televising the GOP gathering unfiltered by network news organizations a patriotic gesture. Would Amway consider a similar request from Democrats to fund airtime for their convention? "They never called," he laughs. Republicans know when they ask Amway for help, the phone gets answered.