Charity president unhappy about Paul Ryan soup kitchen ‘photo op’

October 15, 2012

Paul Ryan and his wife Janna wash pots at St. Vincent De Paul dining hall. (Associated Press)

Update: Antal, who describes himself as an independent, has voted in Democratic primaries for the past 17 years.

The head of a northeast Ohio charity says that the Romney campaign last week “ramrodded their way” into the group’s Youngstown soup kitchen so that GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan could get his picture taken washing dishes in the dining hall.

Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, said that he was not contacted by the Romney campaign ahead of the Saturday morning visit by Ryan, who stopped by the soup kitchen after a town hall at Youngstown State University.

“We’re a faith-based organization; we are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations,” Antal said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “It’s strictly in our bylaws not to do it. They showed up there, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors.”

He added: “The photo-op they did wasn't even accurate. He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.” Antal later told NBC News that Ryan had cleaned some dirty dishes; his original comment was based on secondhand information from a volunteer. 

Ryan had stopped by the soup kitchen for about 15 minutes on his way to the airport after his Saturday morning town hall in Youngstown. By the time he arrived, the food had already been served, the patrons had left, and the hall had been cleaned.

Upon entering the soup kitchen, Ryan, his wife and three young children greeted and thanked several volunteers, then donned white aprons and offered to clean some dishes. Photographers snapped photos and TV cameras shot footage of Ryan and his family washing pots and pans that did not appear to be dirty.

According to a Romney aide not authorized to speak publicly about the event, the campaign followed its usual protocol for impromptu, on-the-road stops by candidates: A staffer was dispatched to the St. Vincent De Paul Society ahead of Ryan’s visit Saturday morning and spoke with a woman in charge on site, who said that it would be fine for the congressman to stop by. The campaign did not contact Antal ahead of the visit.

The woman on site told the Romney staffer that some of the volunteers had already left, but that most were happy to remain until Ryan arrived, according to the aide. After Ryan left the soup kitchen, the woman approached a campaign staffer and expressed gratitude for Ryan’s visit, the aide said.

Chris Maloney, Ohio communications director for the Romney campaign, said that the visit by Ryan had been intended to highlight the work of the soup kitchen volunteers.

"Our campaign and Congressman Ryan were pleased to bring attention to the meaningful charitable contributions the St. Vincent De Paul Society makes to people in need,” Maloney said.

Antal, a self-described independent voter, said that he “can’t fault my volunteers” for letting the campaign in but said that the campaign  “didn't go through the proper channels.”

He noted that the soup kitchen relies on funding from private individuals who might reconsider their support if it appears that the charity is favoring one political candidate over another.

“I can’t afford to lose funding from these private individuals,” he said. “If this was the Democrats, I’d have the same exact problem.”

He added that the incident had caused him "all kinds of grief" and that regardless of whether Ryan had intended to serve food to patrons or wash dishes, he would not have allowed the visit to take place. 

“Had they asked for permission, it wouldn't have been granted. ... But I certainly wouldn't have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture,” Antal said.

Aaron Blake contributed to this post.


VIDEO: GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan stopped at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio on Saturday, where he and members of his family washed dishes for several minutes. The head of the charity has since come out saying Ryan's visit violated the organization's apolitical status, and that Ryan "just came in here to get his picture taken."

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