Iowa Public Television


Republican Activist Bob Vander Plaats

posted on December 23, 2010

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Man on a mission. Bob Vander Plaats continuing a campaign that already is removing three justices from Iowa's Supreme Court. It's a 2010 election tremor with aftershocks into the New Year. We're discussing Supreme Court replacement, retention and role with conservative strategist Bob Vander Plaats on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: In a traditional year after electing a new governor and dramatically changing the legislature's partisan composition we'd almost exclusively be focusing on those governmental branches. But this year, those branches are being drawn into a judiciary struggle, some might call it a crisis. It is rooted in the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision declaring as unconstitutional Iowa's law defining marriage as between heterosexuals. Reacting to that decision Iowa voters deciding against three of the justices up for retention this past year. Decisions this past month, one of them the court's Chief Justice Marsha Ternus -- now a lawsuit is challenging the very ballot on which those voters indicated their decisions. And those leading the campaign against retaining the three justices are calling for the remaining four to resign and some newly elected legislators are threatening to impeach the four remaining. Activist Bob Vander Plaats heads an organization called Family Leader. It is an issue and advocacy group focusing on family issues and he chairs an organization called Iowa for Freedom. Mr. Vander Plaats, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Vander Plaats: Good to be here.

Borg: We've had you here quite a bit, first as a gubernatorial candidate and then leading this Supreme Court question.

Vander Plaats: I wonder if this works like frequent flyer miles? Do I get anything in return?

Borg: We'll think about that. Across the table two people you know well, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Mr. Vander Plaats, the legislature is going to convene in a couple of weeks. What is the top priority that your group has when lawmakers get together?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think there's a lot of priorities, anything that impacts the family but we'd like to see them reaffirm DOMA the Defense of Marriage Act and probably even limit judicial review on that. We'd like to have them push ...

Glover: Limit the judicial review?

Vander Plaats: Yeah, and, you know what, I think Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid opened up our eyes a little bit with the health care bill. If you read the health care bill there's several places in there that limits judicial review on those issues. So, basically it's saying, hey, we represent the people and we're going to make it clear in case you guys didn't get it the first time in 1998, we're going to make it very clear this time that marriage in Iowa does mean one man, one woman. It would probably be the fastest way at this point to get it through the legislature, get it to the governor's desk to sign. But we're also going to want to have a constitutional amendment so the people of Iowa's voice can be heard on the definition of marriage. We're going to take a look at the selection of how the process for the judge selection, how that takes place. We'd like to recommend changes to that. And we'd also like to beef up our pro-life laws so that this Dr. Carhart wanting to move into Iowa doesn't establish a partial-birth abortion center here.

Glover: As Dean mentioned in his introduction, one of the things that is going in this legislature is some lawmakers are drawing articles of impeachment for the four remaining Supreme Court justices. Will you be involved in that? Are you supporting that?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think that this is, Mike, it's almost a continuum. The first thing was to get the issue in front of the voters and the voters were very clear on November 2, 540,000 people saying they went outside their jurisdiction bounds and so therefore they voted them off the courts. I came out as President and CEO of the Family Leader and I asked for the resignation of the other four. I think it's the honorable thing to do. I think it's the right thing to do. It respects the will of the people. The three legislators Pearson and Massey and I believe Shaw all incoming freshmen, they are drafting articles of impeachment. I believe what you're seeing is that I believe November 2 as a referendum on leadership, they want leadership today and that is what they're expecting.

Glover: Will you actively support their efforts?

Vander Plaats: Right now we're focused on the resignation piece but I think if they don't do the right thing then you have to take a look at other options and I think that is what those three representatives are doing saying here's another option we have if they're not willing to do the right thing.

Henderson: When do you expect to hear on the resignation issue? And if they don't resign would you then support impeachment?

Vander Plaats: Well, you know, it is obviously in the court's hands or it is in the court's court so to speak about when they would choose to make that resignation. In my opinion editorial that was published this past, or a couple of Sundays ago in the Des Moines Register, I thought Kady could make this as part of his condition of the court address as saying this is when we're going to step down and how we're going to step down. I think it's a very reasonable and logical approach because the fact of the matter is if any one of us were brought in front of the Supreme court today we'd have very much of a lack of confidence in that court. The people of Iowa overwhelmingly said we have a lack of confidence in this court, not just in the three that were on the ballot for retention, if all seven were on that ballot all seven would have been voted off.

Henderson: It's too late to change the process whereby Governor-elect Terry Branstad will be choosing replacements for the three who were voted off the Iowa Supreme Court. What sort of change in the judicial nominating process would you seek for the other four positions?

Vander Plaats: Well, what we're looking at is a system that is transparent, it's open, it's fair, it's balanced, it really empowers the people's voice in the selection process. I think what we saw when we went through this whole campaign, this retention campaign is people saw that this is a very biased process. Of the members I think twelve of them were democrats, one was republican, another one maybe no party affiliate. It was a very biased process how they got selected.

Henderson: So, that would require a constitutional amendment to change the process. You would still give the governor, in your perfect world you would still give the governor authority to appoint the justices of the Iowa Supreme Court?

Vander Plaats: I believe we would. Yes, we would. And in this case, Kay, you know that basically this nominating commission brings up three and the governor gets to choose one. If the governor doesn't choose one out of those three, says I don't like any one of the three, well then the chief justice gets to appoint. So, there needs to be major changes in how we appoint the justices to the court.

Glover: What is your priority for making the changes in the nominating system and the people who run the court? Where do you start?

Vander Plaats: I think where we start is where we started a few weeks ago in the press conference asking the other four to resign. I think when we get to the legislative session it's about reaffirming DOMA, getting a constitutional amendment pushed through to get on the ballot but also putting in the process to change the way the justices are appointed and I'm not so sure it takes a constitutional amendment, Kay, we're researching that right now. I think the legislature could make that change.

Henderson: Would you give the governor the same authority that the President has to choose who he or she wishes to appoint to the court?

Vander Plaats: Well, one of the things I brought out when I was running for governor and we talked about the judge selection process I said I think it would be a good idea if the governor got to appoint the justices, the senate would confirm ...

Henderson: Which is the same process at the federal level.

Vander Plaats: Right, but I would go one step further, the people of Iowa still have a vote on retention of those justices. This would not be a lifetime appointment.

Borg: As you mentioned, on the third day after convening the new general assembly there is a scheduled address for the condition of the judiciary. Normally the chief justice would deliver that condition assessment to the legislature. Chief Justice Ternus won't be there, she will be gone and Iowa Public Television is planning to televise that so we are in close contact and as far as we can determine it isn't yet determined. You said Justice Kady is going to deliver that address, that is not yet certain, that hasn't been designated. So, given all of that background what do you think is the condition of the judiciary right now?

Vander Plaats: I think the condition of the judiciary is not very strong. You saw that on November 2. The people of Iowa, the people they represent, the people that they serve have lost complete confidence in them, Dean, and the reason they have lost complete confidence in them isn't because of the marriage issue -- now a lot of people point to just the marriage issue -- they see every one of their freedoms. I have had a lot of farmers talk to me about their private property, gun owners talk to me about their second amendment rights, people who choose to home school and private school their children talk to me about their education rights, they see that if a court will do this, that they did on April 3, 2009, every one of their freedoms comes up for grabs we then will have tyranny, not liberty, that is not the direction they want to head. That is what drove that vote on November 2.

Borg: What would you like to hear? You've already said you'd like to hear resignation of the other four. That is probably improbable.

Vander Plaats: Well, let me explain that, though, Dean, why I'd want to have resignation of the other four. I used to be a high school principal and every now and then we would have an underage drinking party and sometimes only a few of the kids remained on site when we would show up. Yeah, we held those kids accountable but we also knew who else was at that party. We gave those students an opportunity to fess up, come clean, do the honorable thing, share the punishment and the burden of their peers and most of the time they did. We're giving this court an opportunity to lead. The people of Iowa want leadership today, real leadership to look themselves in the mirror and say, you know what, they have lost confidence in us, we should have an orderly transition and let them know we're going to step down, that does not interrupt the court, we still get to have quorum, we still get to decide cases while the new members come to the court.

Glover: We've heard what you'd like to see from the legislature when they convene in a couple of weeks. What do we expect to see from Bob Vander Plaats? Where are you headed?

Vander Plaats: Well, first of all I'm going to do everything I can to build this organization the Family Leader which represents the Iowa Family Policy Center, Marriage Matters, Iowa for Freedom and we are going to build a complete statewide network and we plan to have influence on issues from the schoolhouse all the way to the White House on pro-family issues. So, we're going to have a front row seat whether it be at the legislature or whether it be with the 2012 presidential candidates coming in. As I've joked some people would like to see me go away, I'm not going away. We're staying involved in the fight for our pro-family cause.

Borg: Is this your new job? This is ongoing for the next decade?

Vander Plaats: Yeah, I think if you read any news about it the board of directors extended me an offer and I signed a contract with the Family Leader to be their president and CEO so this is my new job, my day job and many times my night job and weekend job too but to advance issues concerning the family.

Glover: You ran against Governor-elect Branstad in the primary. Talk a little bit about your relationship with Governor Branstad.

Vander Plaats: Well, the relationship of me and Governor Branstad, I don't know how relevant that is. What I do know about Governor Branstad ...

Glover: If you're going to have a future in republican politics you're going to have to factor that in.

Vander Plaats: Yeah and I think vice versa as well. I think it's a deal of I know where he's come as it relates to the courts. I mean, when he got on record and he said he only wanted justices that disagreed with the Varnum opinion, when he said he wants people who understand there's a true separation of powers, the genius of the founding fathers. Those are all steps in the right direction. Here's the thing -- if he only wants justices that disagree with the Varnum opinion of April 3, 2009 it's very disingenuous for the other four to remain on the court. So, a lot of things that he is saying, you know, we're applauding right now and at that press conference I did applaud him for the moves he has made in that direction.

Borg: But what you're saying when you said vice versa I interpret that as saying he needs me.

Vander Plaats: I don't know if he needs me that much and I think that's overplayed a lot. There's no doubt we have significant support. There is a lot of people in the state of Iowa who are very concerned about pro-family issues. And I don't think they're all that concerned about does Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad, do they have coffee together on any particular morning. They want to know, can they work together on advancing pro-family issues and I think we can. I think you’re seeing that being played out with this judge process. He is on record as saying we need to change the way we appoint justices to the high court. So, all of those things are showing moves in the right direction and we're going to applaud him when he does that. If he does something that is anti-family we're going to hold him in check.

Henderson: At the beginning of the show when you ticked off a laundry list of things that you would like the 2011 legislature to act on you did not mention changing Iowa's no fault divorce law. The Iowa Family Policy Center has in the past sought changes in that law. Will you ask legislators to consider changing it?

Vander Plaats: Well, that would be another issue and Chuck Hurley, our president of Iowa Family Policy Center, is going to stay very much in the fight and that would be an issue as well that I'm sure is very near and dear to his heart. We see what divorces do to our society and the cost that is implicated at the government level and others. The other thing we're going to be focusing on, though, there's a long laundry list, we want limited government, we want less taxes, we want great jobs because we also know that the number one cause for divorce is financial duress. So, if we can take that financial duress off of families that's a very pro-family thing to do. So, we're not going to be a single issue organization, we're a pro-family organization.

Glover: Congress has approved a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Two part question -- what is the political fallout from that? And what effect will that have on the operation of the military?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think what effect it's going to have on the operation of the military is probably too soon to determine although there's already indicators of people saying they're going to leave the military earlier than planned, family members saying that they'll want their military members to leave as planned -- I think what they need to do is take a real rational approach, talk to people on the ground in the military. Obviously it's not something that we support at all. I think it does endanger the military as well. I think 18 days after report in a lame duck session of Congress to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell I think that's a very hasty approach, I don't think it has anything to do to benefit of the military, I think it has everything to do to advance a liberal agenda.

Glover: And what is the political fallout of it?

Vander Plaats: Well, the political fallout Barack Obama is going to have to answer to that as well as a lot of the legislators who push that through when it comes to 2012. 2010 is over but there is a clear referendum, there is a clear message sent in the 2010 elections and they either need to learn what that message was sent or they're going to face those same consequences in 2012. That would be the political fallout.

Henderson: I want to return to one other state issue that you mentioned at the beginning of the program, late-term abortions. How would you change Iowa's law which allows late-term abortions in cases of life and health of the mother?

Vander Plaats: I think what we want to do is we want to do anything that bonifies and supports the pro-life agenda and any time that you have a doctor from a neighboring state saying, I want to go into Iowa because the abortion laws are less restrictive there, I can do more there, I think now we want to beef up those laws. Obviously in a perfect world, Kay, I wish we'd overturn Roe v. Wade, I wish we'd have anti-abortion laws on the books.

Borg: Another state issue -- in the Department of Human Services in Iowa currently gay couples are allowed to be foster parents, taking care of children who are in unfortunate circumstances, be removed from their homes and are in foster parents situations. Gay parents now are allowed under the Department of Human Services to serve as foster parents. Is that one thing that you are going to be talking to Terry Branstad about in administering that department?

Vander Plaats: It's something that I'd like to talk to Terry Branstad about.

Borg: Do you object?

Vander Plaats: I think it's a mistake, I really do. I think all research would bear that out, that kids do much better with a one man, one woman husband father and in a biological setting. That would be the obvious -- but even in an education setting where I used to be very much involved, the reason we started recruiting males to go into elementary education because it was healthy for the children to have male role models as well as female and I think it's the same way in the home. I'd like to see it be one man, one woman serving as foster parents as well and that they'd have a married couple that they could really mentor the children as well on healthy relationships.

Borg: Politically it's not high on your agenda right now?

Vander Plaats: There's a lot of things that are high on our agenda and I think what it is, is now that you have a major flip in the Iowa House and you have a major change in the governorship and in the court system I think the clear thing here, Dean, is people want leadership today and on a host of these issues and that's why I think you see Kim Pearson and Tom Shaw and Glen Massey rising up and saying, we'll provide the leadership if nobody else is going to in saying we're going to hold our court in check because they understand how dangerous an out of check court is to a lot of our very freedoms.

Glover: On the same topic, should gay people be prohibited from teaching the public schools?

Vander Plaats: I would not want to see -- I always said that in the workplace whether a heterosexual or a homosexual I don't want your sexual orientation to be on display at the workplace or in the classroom setting. I would hope that if somebody is gay or homosexual that they don't make that an agenda item in front of their classroom. If they did make it an agenda item in front of their classroom you bet I think they don't belong there.

Glover: You've already mentioned the 2012 campaign and the Iowa caucus and the role you hope to play in that campaign. There are those who suggest that the Iowa Republican Party has drifted so far to the right and is controlled by evangelical, conservative groups like yours, that a lot of candidates may skip Iowa, decide not to compete here. Is there a danger with that?

Vander Plaats: Well, first of all, I think that's a mis-statement, I don't accept the premise of that. As a matter of fact, you take a look at the November 2 election and people say, does marriage still play with the voters or doesn't it, obviously it does. Does holding a court in check play with the voters or doesn't it and I think it does. So, I think people are saying are you conservative or aren't you conservative. I think what they're finding out is that if you say well I'm a fiscal conservative but I'm not a social conservative there's a huge disconnect there because people today are saying how can you be a fiscal conservative if you're not a social conservative when the number one cost to government is the break down of the family. So, I don't think people are going to skip Iowa because of that -- I think you'll see more conservatives than ever running for president. Now, you may see a guy like Mitt Romney skip Iowa but I think if he skipped Iowa it's because he invested a lot last time and it didn't turn out well for him. But I think everybody else is going to be playing. I don't know of anybody else that is even considering skipping Iowa.

Henderson: For the benefit of viewers who may not yet know you supported Mike Huckabee in the 2008 caucuses. I'm wondering what you think about the straw poll coming up in August in Ames that the Iowa Republican Party will hold. Should Mike Huckabee participate in that straw poll? Should every candidate who is thinking about running for president participate in that straw poll?

Vander Plaats: First of all, I think that's a decision for Mike Huckabee. Number one is does he get in to run for president? And then number two is does he participate in the straw poll or not? Obviously participation in the straw poll for Governor Huckabee in 2008 or 2007 was a very, very good thing. It launched his candidacy in a big way. But I think every candidate is going to have to make that decision. Is that straw poll beneficial to their campaign or does it hinder their campaign? Now, my philosophy, and you guys have seen me as a candidate enough, if you're going to run let people know you're running and then participate in every venue that you have an opportunity to get your message across. So, if Mike Huckabee decides in March or April, I'm running, he better participate in the straw poll. He may, though, and I've said this before, Mike Huckabee and others are at a different point in their candidacy today. They could come in late, they could be the Fred Thompson but this time inspired, after Labor Day. That being said, Governor Huckabee knows that I am not flat out endorsing him for 2012. Our organization is going to create a fair and level playing field. Governor Huckabee is a close friend but there are other friends that I have that are thinking about running in this election and we're going to create a fair and level playing field.

Glover: What do you say to the buzz that it's getting off to a really slow and late start?

Vander Plaats: I think what it says is that most people are seeing it for what it is. This is a big decision. One is the caucuses have been moved back from January 3 to February 12 so that moves everything back. But everybody is trying to start to get a feel about who is all going to be in this race because if Huckabee comes in the race I think that makes a decision maybe for a couple of others. If Huckabee doesn't get in the race or if Romney gets in the race they're all looking for what segment can I appeal to. Now there's some that are being pretty bold pretty quickly that I think they're running. I think Pawlenty is in, I think Newt Gingrich is in, I think Obviously Rick Santorum is in but others are really just taking a look at the whole landscape and seeing if the stars line up for them.

Henderson: I'm wondering what you think about the Fox effect. A lot of the people you just ticked off have jobs at Fox including Mike Huckabee who has his own program, the Huckabee Show. I'm wondering what you think the effect of Fox is having on Iowa republican voters.

Vander Plaats: Well, Fox has had a huge impact not just on Iowa republican voters but conservatives across the country and I think what people like Mike Huckabee and like Newt Gingrich, maybe like Sarah Palin is that they can be in the living room of caucus goers and voters that that might even delay their timing of getting into the race.

Henderson: Well, it gives them the way to get in late scenario, correct?

Vander Plaats: But what I do believe would be a mistake is to underestimate the Iowa caucus goer who wants to shake your hand not just once or twice but probably three, four or five times before they make a decision. That personal connection with Iowa voters will determine who is the Iowa caucus winner and I think that's why you're seeing some of them or a lot of them in Iowa already even though they're not a declared candidate.

Glover: Make the case for defeating President Obama, making him a one-term candidate. The argument is a sitting president who is paying attention is very difficult to defeat because of the platform that the White House gives. Make the case for any of those people you've mentioned defeating Barack Obama.

Vander Plaats: November 2. If things remain the same, if the leadership is I don't want to listen to the voice of the people, health care primary example, one of the worst things you can do from a leadership position is ask people for input when your mind is already made up. So, they had all these town hall meetings, they didn't listen, they just rammed it right on through. One of the reasons why the justices got voted off on November 2, they didn't want to hear the people's voice, they were just going to make the decision on their own. So, if the leadership continues under Barack Obama with a certain amount of arrogance that he's in charge and everybody else serves him he will be ousted in November of 2012. Now, that being the case we've all been around politics long enough to understand that two years a lot can happen and change.

Glover: How does the chemistry change? You now have, will have a republican controlled house, you don't have solidly democratic government, you have divided government. How does that change the chemistry?

Vander Plaats: Well, there’s no doubt it changes the chemistry. Now if Barack Obama says and shows a willingness to work with a conservative legislature and it probably brings them back into reality a little bit I think that's going to help his cause for the presidency. If he is going to create this environment of partisanship and these guys don't know what they're talking about, I'm still going to try to ram my agenda through he's not going to get re-elected.

Henderson: There's a group of republican governors who are thinking about running for president and republicans like chief executive experience. There's also a guy named John Thune who is a neighboring senator. Do you think he has an opening? You come from northwest Iowa. Do you think he would play in Iowa? Iowans like their neighbors, they love Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Barack Obama, all neighbors.

Vander Plaats: I think they all have an opening right now and I think because they all have an opening whether it be Thune or Pawlenty or Gingrich or Huckabee I think it's why the slow start as well. But the opening is, and I've said this to most of them who have contacted me or who wanted my advice, the people of Iowa and I think the people of America today is they want you to tell them the truth, the hard cold facts and then have a very clear vision that is consistently conservative I think that will compel people to your candidacy and give you an opportunity to win. But if you are not consistently conservative, if you're not willing to speak hard truth into people's lives I think they will see right through that and you will not be our champion.

Borg: We have about a half minute left. Are you going to, in the process of replacing the three justices now, are you at all counseling people along the way to apply to the judicial nominating commission or will you be, when the candidates are revealed, will you be counseling as to who might be appointed?

Vander Plaats: What we've done so far, Dean, is Chuck Hurley has really taken the ball on this one and he has encouraged a lot of attorneys who he believes know the constitution to apply. Two is we have really encouraged this to be an open and transparent piece and I think they're doing that right now. So, I think we're already on that curve.

Borg: Thanks for being with us.

Vander Plaats: Thank you.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press, just before Iowa's 84th Iowa General Assembly convenes we'll be talking with the new house majority leader Linda Upmeyer. She is a republican from Garner. She'll be leading her party's new 60 to 40 seat advantage in the Iowa House of Representatives, the usual times 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. A reminder too the Internet is your direct connection to our Iowa Press staff. The e-mail address is We'd like to hear your comments. I'm Dean Borg. All of us here at Iowa Press and Iowa Public Television wish you the very best in the New Year.

Tags: Bob Vander Plaats divorce Don't Ask Don't Tell families Family Leader foster children gays and lesbians governors gubernatorial candidates Iowa Iowa Family Policy Center Iowa for Freedom Iowa Supreme Court judges judicial retention marriage Marriage Matters politics Republicans same-sex marriage