Moms for Liberty Rises as Power Player in GOP Politics After Attacking Schools Over Gender, Race

June 12, 2023by Ali Swenson, Associated Press
Moms for Liberty Rises as Power Player in GOP Politics After Attacking Schools Over Gender, Race
Moms for Liberty members, from left, Cheryl Bryant, Mishelle Minella, Kelly Shilson and Jessica Tillmann pose for a portrait at Reiter Park on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Longwood, Fla. (Chasity Maynard/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — To its members, it’s a grassroots army of “joyful warriors” who “don’t co-parent with the government.”

To anti-hate researchers, it’s a well-connected extremist group that attacks inclusion in schools.

And to Republicans vying for the presidency, it has become a potential key partner in the fight for the 2024 nomination.

Moms for Liberty didn’t exist during the last presidential campaign, but the Florida-based nonprofit that champions “ parental rights ” in education has rapidly become a major player for 2024, boosted in part by GOP operatives, politicians and donors.

The group that has been at the forefront of the conservative movement targeting books that reference race and gender identity and electing right-wing candidates to local school boards nationwide is hosting one of the next major gatherings for Republican presidential primary contenders. At least four are listed as speakers at the Moms for Liberty annual summit in Philadelphia later this month.

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur and “anti-woke” activist Vivek Ramaswamy have announced they will speak at the meeting at the end of June.

The group said it is in talks to bring others to the conference, including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a fringe Democrat known for pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

The high interest in the event underscores how fights surrounding gender and race have become core issues for Republican voters. It also spotlights Republicans’ eagerness to embrace a group that has drawn backlash for spreading anti-LGBTQ+ ideas and stripping libraries and classrooms of diverse material.

The group was founded in 2021 by Tiffany Justice, Tina Descovich and Bridget Ziegler, all current and former school board members in Florida who were unhappy with student mask and quarantine policies during the pandemic.

In two years, the organization has ballooned to 285 chapters across 44 states, Justice said. The group claims 120,000 active members.

It has expanded its activism in local school districts to target books it says are inappropriate or “anti-American,” ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, require teachers to disclose students’ pronouns to parents, and remove diversity, equity and inclusion programs from schools.

The group also has sought to elect like-minded candidates to school boards. In 2022, just over half the 500 candidates it endorsed for school boards nationwide won their races, Justice said.

Moms for Liberty pitches itself as a nonpartisan, grassroots effort started by passionate parents who call themselves “joyful warriors.” Yet the group’s close ties to Republican organizations, donors and politicians raise questions about partisanship and doubts over how grassroots it really is.

Co-founder Ziegler, who stepped down from the board in late 2021 but remains supportive of the group, is married to the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Still a school board member in Sarasota County, she also is a director at the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that regularly trains Moms for Liberty members.

Marie Rogerson, who took Ziegler’s place on the Moms for Liberty board, is an experienced political strategist who had previously managed the 2018 campaign of Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican.

The group also has quickly gained a close ally in DeSantis. In 2021, he signed Florida’s “Parents Bill of Rights,” which identified parents’ rights to direct their kids’ education and health care and was used to fight local student mask mandates. In 2022, he signed a law barring instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, a ban opponents had labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and which has since been extended through 12th grade. Moms for Liberty had loudly advocated both pieces of legislation.

Ziegler appeared behind DeSantis in photographs of the latter bill’s signing ceremony. When the group held its inaugural summit in Tampa last year, it hosted speeches by DeSantis and his wife, Casey, presenting the governor with a “liberty sword.”

And though the group is a 501(c)4 nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, there are other glimpses of how powerful Republicans have helped fuel its rise.

Its summit sponsors, which paid tens of thousands of dollars for those slots, include the Leadership Institute, the conservative Heritage Foundation and Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian cellphone company whose PAC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to take over Texas school boards.

Maurice Cunningham, a former political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who has tracked Moms for Liberty’s growth and relationships, said its ability to draw so many top Republican candidates to its second annual summit is a testament to its establishment support.

“Yes, there are certainly moms that live in their communities and so forth who are active,” Cunningham said. “But this is a top down, centrally controlled operation with big-money people at the top and political professionals working for them.”

Justice said the group’s work with conservative organizations and DeSantis shows they take interest in the group’s cause, but doesn’t mean it isn’t grassroots.

Even as Moms for Liberty has aligned with establishment Republicans, researchers say its activism is part of a new wave of far-right anti-student inclusion efforts around the country.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremism around the country, designated Moms for Liberty as an “anti-government extremist” group in its annual report released last week, along with 11 other groups it said use parents’ rights as a vehicle to attack public education and make schools less welcoming for minority and LGBTQ+ students.

The label comes after some of the group’s leaders and chapter chairs have been accused of harassing community members and amplifying false claims related to gender controversies.

Justice said calling Moms for Liberty’s activities extremist is “alarming” and that the group’s efforts to fund and endorse school board races show it is not anti-government.

She said the group removes chapter chairs who break its code of conduct and that it has members and leaders who are gay, including one member of its national leadership team.

A growing coalition of local organizations that promote inclusivity in education has begun to mobilize against Moms for Liberty and are petitioning Marriott to stop the upcoming conference. Defense of Democracy, a New York organization founded in direct opposition to Moms for Liberty, plans to bring members to Philadelphia to protest in person.

“They’re so loud and so aggressive that people are kind of scared into silence,” Defense of Democracy founder Karen Svoboda said of Moms for Liberty. “You know, if you see bigotry and homophobia, there is a civic responsibility to speak out against it.”

Moms for Liberty, in turn, said it will increase security for its meeting. Marriott hasn’t responded to the petition, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “extremist” designation hasn’t deterred any Republican candidate who plans to speak.

Haley responded by tweeting, “If @Moms4Liberty is a ‘hate group,’ add me to the list.” Ramaswamy went onstage for a Thursday town hall with Justice and tweeted that SPLC stands for “Selling Political Lies to Corporations.”

Those responses are unsurprising to Cunningham, who said in today’s climate, the “extremist” label is “almost a badge of honor” within the GOP.

Moms for Liberty, for its part, is fundraising off it. After the SPLC report was public, Justice said the group quickly raised $45,000, an amount a larger donor has agreed to match.

___

The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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