In a centerpiece story in the Jan. 8 Sunday Business section, the Sioux City Journal details the prominent role Orange City-based Pizza Ranch again played in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses.
With the exception of Mitt Romney, every GOP hopeful who actively campaigned in Iowa made at least one appearance at one of the more than 70 Pizza Ranch locations spread out around the state. Rick Santorum, who came within eight votes of a surprise victory, alone made 36 such stops.
Why did Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, keep his distance from Pizza Ranch. The New York Times offered the following explanation in this little-noticed blog post.
"Every candidate for the Republican nomination has campaigned at Pizza Ranch, a beloved restaurant chain in Iowa with strong ties to the Christian right," the NYT wrote in the Dec. 31 post. "Every candidate except Mr. Romney. His campaign prides itself on a vigilance and meticulousness bordering on the obsessive. So before Mr. Romney appears at a campaign stop or accepts an endorsement, his staff conducts sometimes painstaking vetting to avoid potentially embarrassing disclosures."
"A founder of Pizza Ranch, it turned out, spent time in prison on charges of sexually abusing male employees. 'There is not a lot of room for mistakes,' said David Kochel, Mr. Romney's top strategist in Iowa."
The Pizza Ranch co-founder referenced is former Sioux County businessman and Republican political activist Lawrence Vander Esch. In August 2001, Vander Esch pleaded guilty in Sioux County District Court to four counts of third-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. I won't repeat the details of the case here, but, if you're interested, they're available in this Nov. 16. 2002 Journal story.
Vander Esch was discharged from prison in March 2006, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. Later that year, a district court judge, citing an Iowa Supreme Court ruling in a separate case, vacated his conviction and cleared his record.
Vander Esch removed himself from daily operations at Pizza Ranch after his 2001 arrest. In fact, his name has been erased from the company's official history, which today credits current company president Adrie Groeneweg as the sole founder of the chain, which started in 1981 with a single restaurant in Hull, Iowa.