It is unwise to write Fred Karger off as a transient annoyance. Bolthouse Farms, the Ken Garff Automotive Group and CEO Doug Manchester of Manchester Hotels found that out when the self-professed "rabble-rouser" exposed their involvement and financial support of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.
Karger managed to wring out of them apologies and financial donations to LGBT groups of equal value to their Prop 8 donations. Karger helped expose the heavy involvement and support for Prop. 8 by elders of the Mormon Church.
In 2012, Karger turned his sights on the Amway, the giant direct-sales conglomerate that some have called a cult. Its conservative owners, the powerful DeVos family, have given a recorded $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage.
Karger’s vocal protest to Amway has gotten some big-time results: Top NFL players have noticed and vow to join his boycott.
As for Karger, at 63, the one-time Republican presidential hopeful still works hard at the group he founded, Rights Equal Rights, previously Californians Against Hate. Taking on Amway represents a true David v. Goliath fight.
Last year, Forbes Magazine ranked Amway the 25th largest private company in the U.S. Operating in 100 countries and territories, the Ada, Mich.-based Amway is a typical umbrella corporation. Amway brands span several market sectors: Nutrilite/Nutriway and XS health and wellness products; Artistry cosmetics; and Atmosphere air purifiers. Amway’s 2012 product portfolio generated $11.3 billion in revenue.
Working for 27 years as a political consultant specializing in the political art of dirt-digging, Karger learned his trade by working on the inside of the Republican political machine. Conservatives soon found their own tactics being used against them.
Bill Roberts, who had run Ronald Reagan’s first two campaigns, was Karger’s mentor. He "taught me the opposition side of campaigns," said Karger. He became a master of the arcane political art of combing through the opponents’ every utterance, as well as medical, educational, financial, familial, criminal, administrative and voting history to get some usable dirt.
Amway’s sheer size, diversified portfolio and lack of bricks-and-mortar stores presents a special problem. Direct boycotts of Manchester Hotels and Bolthouse Farms would be difficult. With so many unrelated brands under the Amway umbrella, consumers would need a laundry list in fine print to know whether or not to buy something.
So Karger is focusing his attention on more specific targets, two of Amway’s more conspicuous brands: Laura Mercier and RéVive cosmetics; and the DeVos family itself.
NFL Players Rush Karger’s Ball
Karger’s website, boycottamway.com, hits the company via several means and from different directions. Most direct is a postcard campaign to Doug DeVos.
"We’ve mailed thousands of Boycott Amway postcards to Doug DeVos since our boycott began last August," Karger said. "Every day we mail him 50, 25 or even just five postcards."
Actress Jane Lynch, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo have all lent their names and star power to the cause.
If that seems little more than a mailbox-clogging annoyance, honing in on Amway’s huge network of distributors could be far more harmful to the company’s bottom line. Macy’s, Sephora, Bergdorf Goodman (owned by Neiman Marcus), and Saks Fifth Avenue all carry Laura Mercier and RéVive, making them fair game. Karger is planning picketing several of these stores.
"I’ve relocated to New York to focus on this boycott, because it is the cosmetic capital of the world," said Karger. "It’s 26 percent percent of Amway’s sales that comes from their cosmetic lines, not just Laura Mercier and RéVive."
DeVos: Secretive, Right-Wing Players
Demonstrating their pervasive reach, the DeVos clan owns far more than Amway, including the Orlando Magic basketball team.
The family’s extreme right-wing views are well known to beneficiaries like Newt Gingrich, Focus on the Family and Rick Santorum. Rich DeVos, Doug’s father, served as president of the right-wing Council for National Policy, a media-shunning cabal of social conservatives founded by fundamentalist leader Tim LaHaye whose meetings have included George W. Bush, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell and National Rifle Association executives.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott famously stated America "wouldn’t have had all these problems" if one-time presidential aspirant Strom Thurmond, who ran on a segregationist ticket, won the election. Lott is another DeVos friend.
Saks, Neiman Marcus: How Gay Un-Friendly?
So far, Amway’s response has been to dig in its heels.
"As private citizens, the DeVos family supports causes and organizations that advocate for policies aligned to their personal beliefs," an Amway spokeswoman said in a statement.
MLive.com reported that Doug DeVos hasn’t spoken publicly about his feelings on gay marriage. Patriarch Rich DeVos made his opposition to gay equality under the law clear when he shrugged off the issue in 2009. "That’s just a sacred issue of respecting marriage," he said. "It was not an anti-gay thing."
Equally recalcitrant are several of the outlets that carry Amway products. Saks and Bergdorff Goodman flatly refused to drop Laura Mercier or RéVive. As reported in New York’s Gay City News, Andrea Robins, Saks Fifth Avenue’s director of customer service, defended the retailer’s relationship with LGBT customers and staff, but responded to Karger similarly to Amway, pointing out that DeVos’ donation was done through a private foundation, not through Amway or any other DeVos property.
The Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index gives Saks and Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman abysmal ratings: Saks is 0 out of 100; Neiman Marcus is a 15 out of 100. Compare this to Nordstrom’s 100 and Macy’s 90. Because of Karger’s outreach to Saks, it is now working with the HRC to get its rating up. Neiman Marcus has shown no interest in its ranking.
Making donors the targets of boycotts is an oldie but goodie whose effectiveness is increasingly question. But Karger remains undeterred.
NOM is particularly vulnerable at this point in time, which may give the boycott some teeth. Founder Maggie Gallagher described NOM as a "grassroots organization," but the vast majority of its budget comes from a handful of anonymous donors.
Under legal pressure, NOM released its 2009 990 form to the Human Rights Campaign, revealing $7,106,388 in donations that year. A quick tally showed the National Organization for Marriage had three-quarters of its funding from just five sources in the form of donations of $2.4 million, $1.2 million, $1.1 million, $400,000 and $150,000.
Jesse Zwick, working for The Washington Independent, revealed the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, donated $1.4 million in 2009 -- an amount that is not definitively declared on NOM’s 990 form; NOM’s established pattern of fiscal malfeasance is itself another target in Karger’s crosshairs.
"I’m a pit bull on this, I’m not going away," Karger stated. "I think a lot of other opponents have thought I might just get tired and walk away. But this is what I do, and I will not give up this fight till I stop the funding to NOM and these anti-gay marriage campaigns."
As the boycott continues, his continued efforts may effect change -- and force the DeVos family to confront a public that, according to every recent poll, doesn’t share his views about marriage.
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