The FAMiLY LEADER’s controversial 14-point marriage fidelity pledge has caused a rift within the Republican party and led several GOP insiders and 2012 presidential candidates to raise concerns about the group’s extreme conservative ideology and social beliefs. Aside from asking the party to affirm that homosexuality is a choice and that African American children enjoyed stronger families during the period of slavery, the group’s president — three-time failed gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats — has also been caught suggesting that President Obama was born in Kenya and breaking out in laughter at an offensive anti-gay joke.
Vander Plaats’ brand of social conservatism has found success in Iowa. He helped orchestrate Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) Iowa primary victory in 2008, garnered an impressive 41 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican primary for governor in 2010, and led a winning campaign to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who struck down a state law that prohibited same-sex marriages. Yet Vander Plaats would have floundered in obscurity had it not been for the backing of well-connected and deep-pocketed donors, particularly the Wells family behind Wells Dairy.
The company, headquartered in Le Mars, Iowa, is the third largest ice cream maker in the United States and sells its products under the Blue Bunny label. Wells Dairy has 5 percent market share behind Nestlé (Häagen-Dazs, Dreyer’s, Mövenpick) and Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers Ice Cream), licenses the Weight Watchers brand of ice creams, sells Chef Duff’s ice cream (of Ace of Cakes fame), and partners with Disney to offer Disney-branded novelties. But the Wells family is interested in more than frozen desserts. Mike Wells, the president and CEO of the company, was a member of Vander Plaats’ council of advisers during his gubernatorial campaign and public records reveal that Wells family members have contributed at least $456,000 to Vander Plaats and his affiliated organizations and campaigns:
– $184,500 from Wells family members for his 2010 gubernatorial race, his largest contributors.
– $246,000 from Wells family members for his 2006 gubernatorial race.
– $25,500 from Wells family members for his 2002 gubernatorial race.
– $25,500 to the Iowa Family Center PAC, a group associates with the FAMiLY Leader.
Mike and his wife Cheryl Wells have also started at least two ministries, including The Living Center and Side by Side Ministries, aimed at spreading “the Word of God to others.” Vander Plaats also serves as a channel of the Almighty — and a loyal customer for the family’s product. As one local NBC news story concluded, after his loss in 2010, Vander Plaats “celebrated the end of the night with ice cream. [He] went 100 days without eating his favorite treat.”