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New York Times
16 Dec 2023
Patricia Mazzei

NextImg:Florida Sex Scandal Shakes Moms for Liberty, as Group’s Influence Wanes

Moms for Liberty, a national right-wing advocacy group, was born in Florida as a response to Covid-19 school closures and mask mandates. But it quickly became just as well known for pushing policies branded as anti-L.G.B.T.Q. by opponents.

So when one of its founders, Bridget Ziegler, recently told the police that she and her husband, who is under criminal investigation for sexual assault, had a consensual sexual encounter with another woman, the perceived disconnect between her public stances and private life fueled intense pressure for her to resign from the Sarasota County School Board.

“Most of our community could not care less what you do in the privacy of your own home, but your hypocrisy takes center stage,” said Sally Sells, a Sarasota resident and the mother of a fifth-grader, told Ms. Ziegler during a tense school board meeting this week. Ms. Ziegler, whose husband has denied wrongdoing, said little and did not resign.

Ms. Sells was one of dozens of speakers who criticized Ms. Ziegler — and Moms for Liberty — at the meeting, an outcry that underscored the group’s prominence in the most contentious debates of the pandemic era.

Perhaps no group gained so much influence so quickly, transforming education issues from a sleepy political backwater to a rallying cry for Republican politicians. The organization quickly became a conservative powerhouse, a coveted endorsement and a mandatory stop on the G.O.P. presidential primary campaign trail.

Yet, as Moms for Liberty reels from the scandal surrounding the Zieglers, the group’s power seems to be fading. Candidates endorsed by the group lost a series of key school board races in 2023. The losses have prompted questions about the future of education issues as an animating force in Republican politics.

Donald J. Trump, the dominant front-runner for the party’s nomination, makes only passing reference in his stump speeches to preserving “parental rights” — the catchphrase of the group’s cause. Issues like school curriculums, transgender students’ rights and teaching about race were far less prominent in the three Republican primary debates than abortion rights, foreign policy and the economy. And the most prominent champion of conservative views on education — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — has yet to unite conservatives behind his struggling presidential bid.

John Fredericks, a Trump ally in Virginia, said the causes that Moms for Liberty became most known for supporting — policies banning books it deemed pornographic, curtailing the teaching of L.G.B.T.Q. issues and policing how race is taught in schools — had fallen far from many voters’ top concerns.

“You closed schools, and people were upset about that. Schools are open now,” he said. “The Moms for Liberty really have to aim their fire on math and science and reading, versus focusing on critical race theory and drag queen story hours.”

He added: “It’s nonsense, all of it.”

The two other founders of Moms for Liberty, Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, have distanced themselves from Ms. Ziegler, saying she has not been an officer in the national organization since early 2021. Ms. Ziegler has not responded to requests for comment regarding the investigation against her husband or the calls for her to resign.

In a statement, Ms. Descovich and Ms. Justice dismissed criticism that the group was hypocritical. They argue that it is not opposed to racial justice or L.G.B.T.Q. rights, but that it wants to restore control to parents over their children’s education.

“To our opponents who have spewed hateful vitriol over the last several days: We reject your attacks,” Ms. Descovich and Ms. Justice said. “We are laser-focused on fundamental parental rights, and that mission is and always will be bigger than one person.”

Ms. Justice declined to answer questions about the continued influence of their organization or their electoral losses.

Tina Descovich, left, and Tiffany Justice, the two other founders of Moms for Liberty, distanced themselves from Ms. Ziegler.Credit...Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Nearly 60 percent of the 198 school board candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty in contested races across 10 states were defeated in 2023, according to an analysis by the website Ballotpedia, which tracks elections.

The organization claims to operate 300 chapters in 48 states and to have about 130,000 members.

Jon Valant, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, found in a recent study that the group had an outsize presence in battleground and liberal counties. Yet in those areas, the policies championed by Moms For Liberty are broadly unpopular.

“The politics have flipped on the Moms for Liberty, and they’re turning more people to vote against them than for them,” Mr. Valant said.

In November, the group announced that it had removed the chairwomen of two Kentucky chapters after they had posed in photos with members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. That came several months after a chapter of Moms for Liberty in Indiana quoted Adolf Hitler in its inaugural newsletter. The year before, Ms. Ziegler publicly denied links to the Proud Boys after she had posed for a photo with a member of the group at her election night victory party.

The episodes have transformed the group’s image and alienated it from the voters it once claimed to represent. The group was at one time particularly strong in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, where education issues helped spur Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, to victory in the 2021 governor’s race. (This year, Mr. Youngkin failed in his high-profile attempt at a Republican takeover of the Virginia Statehouse.)

Anne Pogue Donohue, who ran for a school board seat in Loudoun County, Va., against a candidate endorsed by the group, said she saw a disconnect between the cause of Moms for Liberty and the current concerns of voters.

On social media, Ms. Donohue, a former government lawyer and mother of two young children, faced a barrage of personal insults, death threats and accusations that she was trying to “groom” children to become transgender, she said. But during her in-person interactions with voters, she added, a vast majority of parents seemed more concerned with practical issues like math and reading scores, support for special education and expanding vocational and technical programs.

Ms. Donohue won her seat by nearly seven percentage points.

“There is a pushback now,” she said. “Moms for Liberty focuses heavily on culture-war-type issues, and I think most voters see that, to the extent that we have problems in our educational system that we have to fix, the focus on culture-war issues isn’t doing that.”

One place where Moms for Liberty maintains a stronger hold is the state where the group has had perhaps the most influence: Florida.

Since forming in 2020, the group has aligned itself with Mr. DeSantis, backing his parental-rights-in-education law that critics nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay.” The law prohibits classroom instruction on L.G.B.T.Q. topics.

Mr. DeSantis then campaigned for conservative candidates for local school boards, turning nonpartisan races into ones heavily influenced by politics. Several school boards with newly conservative majorities ousted their superintendents.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has been aligned with Moms for Liberty, with the group backing his controversial parental-rights-in-education law.Credit...Rachel Mummey for The New York Times

In Brevard County, the school board is now entirely conservative except for Jennifer Jenkins, whom Mr. DeSantis has already listed as someone he would like to help defeat in 2024.

Ms. Jenkins, an outspoken Moms for Liberty critic who wrested Ms. Descovich’s school board seat from her in 2020, said the organization, while small, had remained a vocal fixture in school board meetings, with about 10 regulars who sometimes bring along people from Indian River and other nearby counties.

“Their members are definitely more extreme than they ever were before,” said Ms. Jenkins, who has been a frequent target of the group. They have picketed outside her house, sent her threatening mail and, she said, taken photos of her in the grocery store as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

On Tuesday, some Moms for Liberty members from Brevard and Indian River Counties attended a Brevard County School Board meeting to protest books that they say should be pulled from schools. Most of the books they named had already been formally challenged.

Still, one by one, group members stood behind the lectern and read explicit scenes from the books until the board’s chairwoman — whom Moms for Liberty and Mr. DeSantis endorsed last year — warned them to stop.

It was what the speakers wanted: Under a Florida law enacted this year, if a school board denies a parent the right to read passages deemed “pornographic,” then the school district “shall discontinue the use of the material.” In other words, cutting off the reading would effectively result in pulling the book from schools, board members said.

“I highly encourage all of you to look at this statute,” Julie Bywater, a member of the Brevard County chapter of Moms for Liberty, told the school board.

Such tactics have become typical for Moms for Liberty members. In response, opponents have started showing up to school board meetings in force, trying to counter the group’s message — including in Sarasota, where Ms. Ziegler’s critics turned out to try to push her out.

The school board, which includes several conservatives who have aligned with Ms. Ziegler before, voted 4 to 1 on Tuesday for a nonbinding resolution urging her to resign; Ms. Ziegler was the only one on the board to vote against it.