Bob Vander Plaats wants his group to have a big role in picking the next president. Vander Plaats is the president/CEO of the Family Leader. His time as the group's leader has brought mixed success so far.
Last year, Vander Plaats helped oust three state Supreme Court justices after the ruling allowing same sex marriages. But earlier this month his group's efforts to help a Republican candidate win a special election Senate race this month in eastern Iowa ended in a lopsided loss.
Just over from a busy East University Avenue in Pleasant Hill, behind the insurance company and hair salon, next to the Mexican restaurant in an otherwise nondescript office building, about a half dozen people get ready for what could be their biggest night. This is the home of the Family Leader. And workers and volunteers get ready to pick a president. Vander Plaats said, "We want to get beyond the talking point, why do you believe what you believe? Why do you think what you think?"
Saturday, Vander Plaats' group hosts its first ever Thanksgiving Family Forum. It is a chance for Republican candidates to win over the expected 2,000-3,000 social conservatives in attendance and ultimately earn the Family Leader's presidential endorsement. Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Perry and Santorum know it. They are all coming. One candidate isn't. Vander Plaats said, "It's a big mistake for Mr. Romney not to show up at this forum."
Vander Plaats wants this forum and his group to be the voice for Iowans who believe in lifelong heterosexual marriage, no more abortions and no more homosexuality which the Family Leader labels "distorted sexual behavior".
Figuring out who's paying to keep the doors open and lights for the group is really tough. You can find a list of some of the donors but the way this is all structured, to find everybody is impossible. Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure records show a wide range of donations from $5,000 from the Family Research Council and $5 from a woman, Kathleen Hedger, in Fort Madison, along with donations from hundreds of others with amounts in between. Vander Plaats said, "It's people who believe in our issues, believe in our cause, are motivated to cut the checks."
Those checks totaled more than a million dollars in contributions last year. But that is only part of the bottom line. The Family Leader is a uniquely setup umbrella group for the Iowa Family Policy Center, Marriage Matters and Iowa Family Political Action Committee. So if you agree with Vander Plaats on even one issue, he has given you numerous opportunities to give your money.
You could donate to a political action committee to elect politicians who believe in the cause. You could give it to Marriage Matters to teach the group's definition of what marriage is. Or you could give to the Family Policy Center to expand the ministry outreach for spreading what it considers truth and justice. There are a variety of ways people of faith put their financial faith in Vander Plaats' network. If you want your donation to stay secret, then you can donate to the organization that is set up to protect your identity. Or if you want your donation known, then you can do that, too. Vander Plaats said everything is set up according to the laws governing his different types of organizations. Vander Plaats as long as we're dotting the i's and crossing the t's, I believe it's fair with what we're doing."
Critics say the Family Leader's original marriage pledge insinuated black children of single parents today were worse off than children of slaves.
This line appeared, "Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President."
Vander Plaats eventually dropped the line. But he adds these were unfair charges from critics who fail to acknowledge children lead better lives coming from married, heterosexual couples. Vander Plaats responded, "They want to attack us, take us down. They view us as a very real and credible threat."
Troy Price, the executive director of the gay-rights group, One Iowa, said about Vander Plaats, "Your bark is far worse that your bite."
Price is often involved in verbal battles with Vander Plaats. Price believes more Iowans are embracing his group's beliefs of marriage equality and Vander Plaats' influence is waning. Price said, "Not as much as people thought he did and certainly not as much as Bob Vander Plaats thinks he does."
Republican strategist Doug Gross, of Des Moines, said, "Outside of Iowa, I think a lot of people are thinking he's some kind of kingmaker for the caucuses and nothing could be further from the truth."
Gross beat Vander Plaats in a three-way battle for the party's 2002 nomination for governor. He thinks Vander Plaats focus on social issues drives Republicans from the party. Gross also contends in the end the party isn`t Vander Plaats' priority. Gross said, "In large part, Bob Vander Plaats' cause is Bob Vander Plaats."
But Vander Plaats responds his group's purpose isn't supposed to be beholden to party. He said, 'This organization is not a Republican subsidiary. We're very focused on issues that affect the family."
Vander Plaats also takes issue with criticism that his efforts are only to promote himself. He said, "It's not about Bob Vander Plaats. If I left this organization, somebody else would fill my spot. And the issues would be very, very important to this base."
Words from that base quickly joined a discussion with dozens of others about Vander Plaats on the Channel 13 Facebook page. Some people wrote in and called him a "cancer" and a "bigot" for his anti-gay views. But many others write that Vander Plaats say he "walks the walk and talks the talk" following God. Another writes that the Family Leader "does excellent work".
Vander Plaats has their words and the checks of hundreds of others who believe in his cause. And he is determined his work will bring the influence supporters demand. He said, "The purpose of it is to strengthen families and we're going to do everything in our power to make sure we can enhance and nurture the Iowa family, the American family."
It's the purpose of the Family Leader, whose power under its controversial leader, we will know better after caucus night on January 3rd.
The Family Leader's marriage pledge for the candidates calls for a variety of requirements including commitments to what it calls as traditional marriage between one man and one woman, fidelity, and robust childrearing and reproduction. It was widely believed that since only Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed the pledge, only one of them could get the group's endorsement. But Vander Plaats said candidates don't necessarily need to sign the pledge, but only, quote, affirm it."
Vander Plaats expects the group's seven-member board to meet Monday about endorsing a presidential candidate. He said since Romney won't attend Saturday's forum he will not be considered for the endorsement. But he adds it is not a certainly the group endorses someone Monday from the six candidates who attend the forum Saturday.