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GOP Candidates’ Iowa Hangout’s Secret: Founder Molested Male Employees

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 31, 2011

In the scramble for delegates that has been the long lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the Republican candidates for president have found a peculiar local chain much to their liking.

An a Dec. 26 article in the Los Angeles Times explains, the chain "has become the de facto stop for conservative candidates traversing the state." In part, it's because there are Pizza Ranches in nearly every town with over 1,000 people. The chain, which was founded in Hull, Iowa, in 1981, has over 160 locations in the Plains and Upper Midwest states.

The restaurants have back rooms that are suitable for hosting political gatherings. "If there's an event at the Pizza Ranch, nine times out of ten it's a political event," Craig Robinson, a local political blogger, told the Times. "They all seem more than willing to host any candidate coming through town."

Aside from its bizarre melding of a Western cowboy motif and pizza, the chain is a Christian based company. Their "mission/vision posters," prominently displayed, describes it as "To glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in." The chain will even prayer for you if you go to its website.

The Western thing might strike some as strange, considering pizza's normal associations with its country of origin, Italy. As the Times describes it: "chairs with horseshoes on the back, bathrooms marked 'Cowboys' and 'Cowgirls,' crayons for the kids and murals of cowboys leading covered wagons past golden mountains."

The chain has come in for some controversy for being the platform for far-right evangelical local power broker Bob Vander Plaats' using it as a venue for his own campaign to have the state reverse same-sex marriage. (Iowa remains the only state outside of the Northeast to have marriage equality.)

Local blog the Newton Independent points out that some Iowans are turned off by the blatant swing to the right. Potential patrons told the blogger, Peter Hussmann, "that his presence at the Pizza Ranch would dissuade them in the future from frequenting the establishment."

Sounds like a clean up-righteous establishment, right? Only one minor problem: This super-conservative, super- Christian restaurant mini-empire has dirty little secret in its closet. One of its two co-founders, Lawrence Vander Esch, who still lives in Hull, was sentenced in 2001 to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to fondling teenage male employees of the Pizza Ranch in Hull. According to blogger Aksarbent, Vander Esch persuaded the men them "to donate semen samples for a medical research project."

Vander Esch was released in March 2005 for good behavior. "A month before his release, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that sexual abuse does not occur if a defendant deceives a victim to get consent to perform a sex act," aksarbent reports. "The ruling was applied retroactively to Vander Esch."

Apparently, such discrepancies haven't deterred Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachman. The two ultra-religious candidates have made Pizza Ranch virtually a branch of their Iowa campaign headquarters.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).