ORLANDO, Florida – Jessica Tillman, a mother of four from Seminole County, developed new interests during the COVID-19 pandemic: fighting school board mask mandates and organizing with like-minded parents.
For Tillman, the government’s response to COVID-19 served as a “wake-up call” that prompted her to organize the Seminole County Chapter of Moms for Liberty, a polarizing group that started in Florida and quickly spread to across the country.
âIt really got the parents to really get involved in the education of our children,â she said.
The fight for face masks has made Moms for Liberty a presence at Central Florida school board meetings, turning once-stalled political discussions into sometimes tense and noisy affairs.
Now the members of the group are focusing their attention on other priorities. Among them: urging schools to remove “pornographic” library books and criticizing educational materials that they say teach critical race theory or praise communism.
Launched on January 1 by a trio of current and former members of the Conservative Florida School Board, Moms for Liberty quickly grew into a national network of parents aimed at becoming an enduring political force.
It has 60,000 members with 152 chapters in 33 states, but many of its local groups are still small, with around 40 paying members who meet in their homes or in local libraries, parks, churches and community centers.
“AN UNSTARABLE WILD FIRE” OF “WEDDING MOMS”, SAYS THE GOP STRATEGIST
Some of the gatherings are âget-togethers in Madisonâ where they read aloud the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Meetings begin with an oath of allegiance and a prayer and include a review of local school board programs. The group’s philosophy is proudly proclaimed on the Moms for Liberty navy t-shirts that have become a staple at school board meetings: “We are not co-parents with the government.”
The group’s rapid rise has been compared to the Tea Party movement that swept the country during the Great Recession. Bridget Ziegler, one of the founders, said parents who have long felt excluded from their children’s education fuel growth.
âThese are their children,â said Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member married to a senior Florida GOP official. âThere is nothing that excites people more than their children and rightly so. “
The group, “on a mission to stoke the fires of freedom”, considers parental rights as its primary objective. He hopes to influence the Florida school board election next year. Moms for Liberty has also become the darling of some GOP executives, with a Jacksonville mother appearing on stage with Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference last month.
Christian Ziegler, husband of Bridget and vice president of the Florida Republican Party, has said he expects education issues to mobilize voters for top-to-bottom ‘libertine’ candidates in the election next year.
âIt’s a lot harder to show up to school board meetings than it is to vote, and these parents show up in droves to those school board meetings,â he said. “It’s like an unstoppable forest fire out there.”
Politicians who dismiss the concerns of “pissed off moms” do so at their peril, Ziegler said, noting that such views helped propel Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race earlier this month. -this.
But Wes Hodge, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, sees Moms for Liberty as less popular and more as part of a “coordinated effort” to influence the 2022 election by pulling back supporters of former President Donald Trump. on cultural war issues.
The group’s views do not represent mainstream thinking in Orange County, he said. An August Quinnipiac University poll found that 60% of Floridians supported mask requirements for students, teachers and staff.
âIt’s a way to keep the Trump Train engaged,â he said. “If you want to show up in a clown costume and spit nonsense about how masks cause UTIs, more power is for you.” It is democracy. Does this mean that they have the right to have a policy adopted according to their views? No.”
Hodge was upset when a member of Moms for Liberty asked Orange County public schools to remove the book “Gender Queer” from three high schools, using Jacob Engels, the blogger and political agent associated with the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist. group.
âThey try to present themselves as a harmless bunch of moms who care about their children’s education,â Hodge said. “My father always said that you are the company you keep.”
“NOW WE ARE PAYING ATTENTION”
Jennifer Jenkins, a member of the Brevard County School Board, made national news last month when she described threats she faced for voting for a student mask mandate. She told Yahoo News that she viewed Moms for Liberty as the “match” that fueled the harassment against her.
Jenkins won her seat after defeating Tina Descovich in the 2020 election. Descovich then helped start Moms for Liberty shortly thereafter.
The group denied participating in or encouraging protests against Jenkins – some of which were outside his home – and said they condemned such behavior.
âWe call ourselves happy warriors,â Descovich said. âWe want to stand firm on our principles. “
Tillman, who often quotes Benjamin Franklin when speaking at school board meetings, said members respect that description and do not seek confrontation. âWe like to follow the rules,â she said.
The objective is not to fight with the school boards but to “do what is best for the children”, agreed Misty Griffin, president of the Orange County chapter which held its first meeting in August. .
“Moms for Freedom was never meant to be at war with the school board,” added Griffin, a mother of three in Winter Garden. âUnfortunately, sometimes it feels like it’s like that. “
Masks’ mandates rallied them, but with those now canceled across Florida, Moms for Liberty chapters moved on to other issues, believing that more school board decisions need to be scrutinized.
“Now we are careful,” said Rebecca Sarwi, vice president of the Volusia County chapter, admitting that she was “not at all” involved in school board affairs until the board de Volusia imposes a mask mandate which she considered to be a violation of her parental rights.
âThat kind of fueled the fire in a way,â she said.
Recently, the Moms for Liberty chapters have uncovered new concerns.
An Orange Moms for Liberty member has asked the school district to remove âGender Queerâ from school libraries after complaining about his explicit sex texts and drawings. The Orange Chapter now examines about 100 other books – from a list that a lawmaker she refused to identify shared, Griffin said.
In Seminole, members of Moms for Liberty in September urged that school district to drop BrainPOP, an educational website, because they didn’t like its lessons on the Black Lives Matter, Che Guevara and Communism protests and believed that he was teaching critical breed theory – which was banned in Florida. public schools. However, the website remains in use.
Group member Cheryl Bryant called some of the lessons âneo-Marxist garbageâ and an effort to advance critical race theory without using the name. “We are not stupid,” she said. “We recognize ideology, whatever it’s called.”
MOMS FOR FREEDOM AND GOP TIES
Descovich, Ziegler and Tiffany Justice, a former Indian River County School Board member, filed the group’s incorporation documents with the state in December. Ziegler said she resigned in February to focus on her job as a business risk manager and other responsibilities.
The group quickly rose to popularity among pundits and conservative executives, with Descovich appearing on the Rush Limbaugh Show in late January. DeSantis invited Quisha King, a member of the Jacksonville group, to join him at a press conference in October held to extol parental rights and denounce mask warrants.
The group’s ties to Republican leaders have sparked speculation that Moms for Liberty is funded by GOP donors with deep pockets. Because the group is so new, its financial records with the Internal Revenue Service have not been made public.
Descovich said Moms for Liberty is supported by small donations and merchandise sales. The group’s online store offers t-shirts and hats as well as a Moms for Liberty flag for $ 75.
âWe are open to any large donor,â Descovich said.
King, the Jacksonville mother who worked for Blacks for Trump, made it clear what Moms for Liberty’s political goals were when she joined DeSantis at her press conference last month.
âWe definitely need to elect competent school board members who will stand up for the rights of parents,â she said, âand I will fight for any parent who wants to run for school board.â
Members from central Florida said they plan to participate in school board races in 2022, supporting candidates who share their view that “parental rights” should take center stage. It’s a message they say will resonate in Florida, just as it did in the race for governor of Virginia.
“It has proven that parents care,” Griffin said, “and, yes, parents, as a whole, are a force to be reckoned with.”