Ryan's Soup kitchen visit goes awry

Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his wife Janna wash pots at St. Vincent DePaul dinning hall, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

A weekend visit to a soup kitchen blew up on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, prompting a protest from the charity's president that news reports later found to be partially inaccurate.

After holding a town hall Saturday at Youngstown State University, Ryan visited the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society. Breakfast service had already ended for the day, but Ryan washed a few pots and pans with his family.

Brian J. Antal, the group's president, told The Washington Post after the visit that Ryan and campaign aides had "ramrodded their way" into the soup kitchen without seeking his permission first. He suggested the visit could jeopardize the group's donor base or its nonprofit status as a faith-based organization.

A volunteer at the soup kitchen, Juanita Sherba, told the Youngstown Vindicator that she gave a staffer from the campaign permission to conduct the visit before Ryan arrived, but said in hindsight she wishes she hadn't because the event was a "photo op." "They couldn't have cared less," Sherba said. "The advance man said Paul Ryan wanted to come and talk to our clientele, but he didn't."

Antal told local reporters on Tuesday that the story had "spun out of control," but that he wasn't upset with Sherba for letting the campaign stop by because he doesn't expect her to know the charity's rules and bylaws.

While Antal initially said Ryan "did nothing" during the stop, he later told NBC News that his words were mischaracterized in the Post story. He said Ryan just did little work compared to other volunteers who had helped served food that morning. Ryan and his family washed dirty dishes the campaign staff had asked the volunteers to leave behind, contrary to several news reports that said the dishes were clean.

The Post later updated its story to note that Antal, who self-identifies as an independent, has voted in Democratic primaries for the last 17 years.

Asked about the visit, Ryan spokesman Michel Steel said, "We are always happy to highlight the importance of volunteerism and local charities."

The narrative about an uninvited politician washing clean dishes - or dishes left dirty so he could wash them - was an irresistible target for the Democratic National Committee.

"Thanks to GOP Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, we've been reminded once again that details matter. Details like, "Are the pots and pans I am scrubbing already clean?" or "Does anyone actually want me to be here right now?' DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse wrote in an email. He said the budget plans supported by Ryan and GOP nominee Mitt Romney would cut programs that directly benefit the types of families who depend on charities like the St. Vincent De Paul Society "when they fall on hard times."

Woodhouse later circulated a poster tying Ryan's charity visit to the GOP ticket's support for preserving Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. "Extending tax breaks for those already wealthy is like washing dishes that are already clean," the poster said.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.