After a contentious confirmation process in which many Democrats questioned the qualifications of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, the Senate confirmed DeVos on Tuesday. The vote passed by the thinnest possible margin.
Two Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — broke from their party to vote against DeVos. That left the Senate in a 50-50 tie. Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in his role as ex officio President of the United States Senate.
It was the closest Democrats have come to blocking one of Trump’s nominees. Many Democrats vocally criticized DeVos, who has no experience with public education and has been a longtime advocate of school voucher programs and privatization, seizing an opportunity to curry favor with supporters who have already grown frustrated with the Trump administration and saw DeVos as a particularly troubling cabinet nominee.
— Joey Brooklyn (@Joe_America1776) February 9, 2017
Much of the criticism centered around DeVos’ campaign contributions to the Republican Party, which some believe could have totaled up to $200 million in campaign contributions over the years.
“Mrs. DeVos, there is a growing fear, I think, in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very, very wealthy billionaires control, to a significant degree, our economic and political life,” Vermont Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders asked DeVos during her confirmation hearing in January. “Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”
When DeVos suggested she did not know how much her family had donated, Sanders offered the $200 million number. DeVos then acknowledged that estimate was “possible.”
“Do you think that if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions, that you would be sitting here today?” Sanders continued.
It was typical of the types of questions raised about DeVos’ qualifications and political connections.
— L G J (@wcgirl1) January 27, 2017
Democratic Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey), who many see as a champion of progressive causes and a possible contender in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, also voiced concern over DeVos’ nomination.
“It is no secret that I strongly believe we have a lot of work to do to ensure that every child in America has access to a high-quality public education,” Booker told The 74, a nonprofit news site dedicated to education news.
“I greet Ms. DeVos’s nomination with a healthy skepticism, and I have serious early concerns… Like all of Trump’s nominees, I will approach her nomination with deep scrutiny, especially because I am alarmed by President-elect Trump’s overall education agenda and fear that he has little respect for — or interest in — the critical work that the Department of Education performs for our children.”
Booker’s criticism of DeVos struck some as being rather curious, considering that he had worked with DeVos on pushing the so-called “school choice” agenda in the past.
When Booker was mayor of Newark, he served on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice with DeVos, and, like Devos, he has been a loyal and influential advocate for private charter schools.
Writing for The Jacobin, Andrew Hartman suggests that Booker’s criticism of DeVos, and his vote against her, was nothing more than political spectacle to curry favor with Democrats without really costing himself anything.
“Perhaps the most effective advocate of school choice is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who many Democrats are touting as the party’s savior in the post-Obama era,” Hartman writes. “Liberals swooned when Booker opposed his Senate colleague Jeff Sessions, the right-wing racist Trump tapped to be the next attorney general. But however laudable, Booker’s actions didn’t take much in the way of courage.”
The reason it didn’t take much courage in Hartman’s view is because most of Booker’s major financial backers don’t really care about the DeVos vote, especially when considering that Booker’s vote ultimately didn’t matter one way or the other.
“Booker’s funders — hedge-fund managers and pharmaceutical barons — don’t care about such theatrics. They’re more concerned that he vote Big Pharma’s way and keep up his role as a leading member of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-privatization group,” Hartman continues. “They want to make sure he continues attacking teachers’ unions, the strongest bulwark against privatization.”
Booker may have voted against DeVos, but it is quite possible that he’ll continue to support many of the policies, such as school choice and privatization, that DeVos was most harshly criticized for.
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]