Local Philanthropist Stephen M. Ross’ Political Allegiances are Making Waves

The billionaire University of Michigan alumnus’ fundraising plans for President Donald Trump caused a big stir
Stephen Ross
Stephen M. Ross, who held a fundraiser for President Donald Trump, is in hot water with liberals. // Photograph courtesy of NS via ZUMA Wire

It seems safe to say that billionaire, University of Michigan megadonor, and Detroit native Stephen M. Ross was as surprised as anyone when his willingness to host a  late-summer fundraiser for President Donald Trump turned into a massive scandal. The cause of surprise for each side, though, is quite different. Liberals were thoroughly stunned to discover that Ross, whose philanthropic efforts include heaps of money for some progressive causes, was such a Trumper; Ross, who has given $1.2 million to Republican candidates for federal office and political action committees since 2015, had to be baffled that the political world had only now noticed what side of the aisle he favors.

After news of the planned fundraiser broke in early August, angry celebrities including Billy Eichner and Chrissy Teigen urged a widespread boycott of the spin studio chain SoulCycle and Equinox, a trendy fitness chain with an outlet in Bloomfield Hills. Both are subsidiaries of The Related Companies, the real estate development behemoth Ross, 79, started in 1972 that is perhaps best known for its stewardship of Manhattan’s Time Warner Center.

While it’s unclear how effective the boycotts are — an Equinox spokeswoman told Hour Detroit that Trump-related cancellations have “come to less than 1% of our members” — the Ross backlash is likely to be far longer-lived in the ultra-liberal Ann Arbor as the presidential election approaches. The 1962 U-M alum has given $378 million to the school, including a $200 million donation in 2013 that remains the single largest in the school’s history. His name adorns both the business school and a vast athletic complex next to the Big House.

That makes several iconic locations around campus that will likely be used as backdrops for protests against Trump and his policies. The first evidence of this came with an open letter signed by around 600 U-M alums urging the school to “remove Ross’ name from campus buildings and signage, and solicit student and alumni input into whether and how to reconsider his philanthropic contributions to the university.”

“We still feel that’s a legitimate request of the university, although both the business school and the university spokespeople more or less said they are not going to do anything,” says U-M alum and New York-based attorney Kumar Rao, who wrote the open letter. “Stephen Ross is not just any voter or supporter. He is a billionaire who is putting millions of his own dollars to work for the re-election of Trump. That puts him in a different category.”

“He is a billionaire who is putting millions of his own dollars to work for the re-election of Trump. That puts him in a different category.”

—Kumar Rao, U-M alum and New York-based attorney

Perhaps, but Ross’s conservatism was hardly a secret. True, he didn’t directly donate to Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 — he supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the primary — but that year he kicked in $200,000 to the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund, $100,000 to the Republican National Committee, and more than $94,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. In Michigan, his political giving this decade included maxing out to unsuccessful Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land in 2014, Rep. Dave Trott in 2016 and, last year, congressional hopeful Lena Epstein in her failed bid to succeed the retiring Trott. All were Republicans; Ross’ last donation to a Michigan Democrat running for Congress was in 2008 when he gave $2,300 to support Sen. Carl Levin’s re-election.

Yet until the Hamptons kerfuffle, Ross had mostly stayed out of the political firing line. His closest call was in 2018 when, as owner of the Miami Dolphins, he warned players he would suspend them for four games if they kneeled in protest during the national anthem. Demonstrators said they were opposing race-related police brutality, but Trump attacked them as being anti-military. Ross quit the NFL’s social justice committee this summer amid the backlash over his Trump fundraiser.

“Stephen Ross is a great man and business leader who should be thanked for the great things he has done for our country, state, and universities,” Epstein, who lost to U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens after aligning herself closely with Trump, wrote in a statement to Hour Detroit. Likewise, U-M’s College Republicans chair Maria Muzaurieta has dubbed the attacks on Ross over the Trump fundraiser a “media slander.”

Ross, who despite repeated attempts at contact via phone and email did not respond for an interview with Hour Detroit, defended the August fundraiser for Trump, insisting in a statement to Politico that his support for the president should not negate his record as a “champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education, and  environmental stability.” He also asserted that he and the president “strongly disagree” on some issues. And Ross has received praise from liberals for the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a pro-inclusion non-profit that funds minority sporting activities and educational programs around the nation, and for the $7.5 million Ross gave in 2017 to an effort to build more affordable housing in several downtown and Midtown neighborhoods in Detroit. “I mean, hey, it’s where I’m from,” Ross told Crain’s Detroit Business. “I want to see the city come back. It’s all about that.”

Editor-in-chief of Michigan Advance and longtime pundit Susan Demas says the Trump fundraiser drama may cast a new light on Ross and his philanthropic efforts going forward. “Ross walked between the raindrops, because he’s got RISE and invests in these socially conscious businesses like SoulCycle, so people assumed he’s one of these socially liberal but economically conservative type of Republicans,” Demas says. “Upon closer examination that doesn’t seem to be the case.”