When the late LGBTQ leader Donna Red Wing asked me out for coffee, I accepted out of intrigue. I never envisioned one day we would become dear friends, challenging and inspiring many to have civil conversation over deep disagreements.
Our friendship and coffees, per Donna's encouragement, eventually became public via Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu. I remember commenting to Donna my hesitancy, as I didn't consider her columns to be neutral or unbiased. Donna assured me that Rekha would be fair and that we should agree to this opportunity, as our story would inspire others.
Donna was correct. Rekha did a fair job in telling our story. On the front page of the 2014 New Year's Eve edition, our story was made public. It communicated our friendship and our hope in modeling civility, while not shying away from our differences and the unlikely nature of our conversations. Rekha ended her column with a New Year's challenge for her readers: Reach out to someone you really disagree with and have coffee in search of common ground.
Out of respect for Rekha's challenge and in honor of Donna's legacy, I recently invited the seven top Democrat presidential hopefuls to our annual Family Leadership Summit to discuss a vision of unity for America and how their personal faith guides their leadership, their policy, and their governance. I promised a safe environment and a civil conversation, much like Donna and I experienced on numerous occasions.
To my dismay, it appears the candidates are declining the opportunity, and America is missing out. Some of them have resorted to insult and divisive rhetoric to explain their decision instead of rising to the high call of leadership. How much better would our nation be if our leaders modeled and communicated beliefs and vision with a respect for others?
The irony is my invitation is to the same environment where Donna first asked me out for coffee. Donna and a One Iowa employee attended our 2013 Family Leadership Summit—where our key guest was New York businessman Donald Trump. During the lunch break that day, Donna navigated the multitude of attendees to introduce herself to me and to my wife, Darla. After our brief greeting and introduction, Donna asked me out for coffee.
I recently told a mentor about my invitation to the leading Democrat presidential contenders. He asked me if I would accept such an invitation to an unlikely environment and audience to share my views.
Before I could answer, Darla quickly injected that I have, on multiple occasions. The one that quickly came to mind is when I accepted the Des Moines Register's invitation to present and to participate on a panel to discuss transgender issues at Wooly's bar in Des Moines' East Village. Anyone reading this who knows me and knows Des Moines will recognize this as an unlikely venue and audience. But not many people know that it was Donna who encouraged me to accept. She said everyone would benefit and leave better because of my acceptance.
Donna was right. In fact, after the event, an attendee came up to me with her spouse and said she was "mad as hell." I apologized and asked why. She stated she was mad because she "couldn't hate me anymore." Donna was right we left the unlikely conversation better people.
It's no secret that we live in divisive and polarizing times. My fear is we are embracing hatred versus understanding when we encounter disagreement. We are witnessing and growing numb to the senseless acts of violence in synagogues, churches, and nightclubs. There has to be a better way.
One way is to model what civility looks like. Thus, I encourage the leading Democrat hopefuls to accept my sincere offer for an honest, transparent, and civil conversation in a safe environment. While we may not leave agreeing and supporting one another, we'll leave better and model a better way. We should talk…
Article originally published by Bob Vander Plaats in Des Moines Register on May 3, 2019.
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Bob Vander Plaats was born and raised in Sheldon, Iowa. After earning both a Master's and a Specialist education degree from Drake University, he quickly advanced to the ranks of high school principal. Bob is the former CEO of Opportunities Unlimited. He acted as the Iowa state chair for former Republican Presidential candidate, Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and served as National Co-Chair for Ted Cruz for President in 2016. He unsuccessfully ran for governor of Iowa in 2002, 2006 and 2010, which led him to his current position as president and CEO of The Family Leader. He has been married to his wife Darla for over 30 years and together they have 4 sons.