ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jessica Tillman, a Seminole County mother of four, developed some new interests during the COVID-19 pandemic: Fighting against school board mask mandates and organizing with like-minded parents.
For Tillman, the government response to COVID-19 served as an “awakening” that spurred her to organize the Seminole County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a polarizing group that started in Florida and rapidly expanded across the country.
“It really brought on the need for parents to really be involved in our children’s education,” she said.
The fight over face masks made Moms for Liberty a presence at Central Florida school board meetings, turning once-staid policy discussions into sometimes tense and raucous affairs.
Now, the group’s members are shifting their attention to other priorities. Among them: urging schools to remove “pornographic” library books and criticizing instructional materials they think teach critical race theory or praise communism.
Launched on Jan. 1 by a trio of current and former conservative Florida school board members, Moms for Liberty quickly grew into a national network of parents aiming to become a lasting political force.
It puts its membership ranks at 60,000 with 152 chapters in 33 states, but many of its local groups are still small, with 40 or so dues-paying members who meet in their homes or local libraries, parks, churches and community centers.
‘AN UNSTOPPABLE WILDFIRE’ OF ‘PISSED-OFF MOMS,’ GOP STRATEGIST SAYS
Some of the gatherings are “Madison meet ups” where they read aloud from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The meetings start with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer and include a review of the local school board’s agendas. The group’s philosophy is proudly proclaimed on signature navy Moms for Liberty t-shirts that have become a fixture at school board meetings — “We do not co-parent with the government.”
The group’s rapid rise has been likened 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 they have been sidelined from their children’s education are fueling the growth.
“This is their children,” said Ziegler, a Sarasota County School Board member married to a top Florida GOP official. “There is nothing people get more passionate about than their children and rightfully so.”
The group, “on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty,” views parental rights as its overarching goal. It hopes to influence Florida school board elections next year. Moms for Liberty has also become the darling of some GOP leaders, with one Jacksonville mother appearing on stage with Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference last month.
Christian Ziegler, Bridget’s husband and the vice-chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said he expects education issues will mobilize voters for “liberty-minded” candidates up-and-down the ballot in next year’s elections.
“It is a lot more difficult to show up to school board meetings than to vote, and these parents are showing up in droves at these school board meetings,” he said. “It is like an unstoppable wildfire out there.”
Politicians who dismiss the concerns of “pissed off moms” do so at their own peril, Ziegler said, noting such views helped propel Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in the Virginia governor’s race earlier this month.
But Wes Hodge, chair of Orange County’s Democratic Party, sees Moms for Liberty as less grassroots and more part of a “coordinated effort” to influence 2022 elections by firing up supporters of former President Donald Trump through culture war issues.
The group’s views do not represent mainstream thought in Orange County, he said. A Quinnipiac University poll from August found 60% of Floridians supported mask requirements for students, teachers and staff.
“This is a way to keep the Trump Train engaged,” he said. “If you want to show up in a clown suit and spew nonsense about how masks cause UTIs, more power to you. That’s Democracy. Does that mean they have a right to have policy enacted after their viewpoints? No.”
Hodge was upset when a Moms for Liberty member got Orange County Public Schools to remove the book “Gender Queer” from three high schools, using Jacob Engels, the blogger and political operative who is an associate of the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalists group.
“They try to present themselves as an innocuous group of moms who care about their kids’ education,” Hodge said. “ My dad always use to say you are the company you keep.”
‘NOW WE’RE PAYING ATTENTION’
Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member, made national news last month when she described threats she faced for voting for a student mask mandate. She told Yahoo News 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 a short time later.
The group denied taking part or encouraging the protests against Jenkins — some were outside her home — and said it condemned such behavior.
“We call ourselves joyful warriors,” Descovich said. “We want to stand firm on our principles.”
Tillman, who often quotes Benjamin Franklin when she speaks at school board meetings, said members abide by that description and do not seek out confrontation. “We like to follow the rules,” she said.
The goal is not to fight with school boards but “do what’s best for the kids,” agreed Misty Griffin, chair of the Orange County chapter that held its first meeting in August.
“Moms for Liberty was never meant to be warring with the school board,” added Griffin, a Winter Garden mother of three. “Unfortunately, it feels like that at some times.”
Mask mandates rallied them but with those now rescinded across Florida, Moms for Liberty chapters moved onto other issues, convinced more school board decisions need scrutiny.
“Now, we’re paying attention,” said Rebecca Sarwi, vice-chair of the Volusia County chapter, admitting she was not involved “at all” in school board matters until the Volusia board imposed a mask mandate she viewed as a violation of her parental rights.
“That kind of fueled the fire in a way,” she said.
Recently, Moms for Liberty chapters found new concerns.
An Orange Moms for Liberty member got the school district to remove “Gender Queer” from school libraries after complaining about its explicit sexual texts and drawings. The Orange chapter is now looking at about 100 other books — from a list a lawmaker she declined to identify has shared, Griffin said.
In Seminole, Moms for Liberty members in September urged that school district to drop BrainPOP, an educational website, because they disliked its lessons about Black Lives Matter protests, Che Guevara and communism and felt it taught critical race theory — which has been banned in Florida’s public schools. The website remains in use, however.
Cheryl Bryant, a group member, referred to some of the lessons as “neo-Marxist rubbish” and an effort to push critical race theory without using that name. “We are not stupid,” she said. “We recognize the ideology no matter what it is called.”
MOMS FOR LIBERTY 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 stepped down in February to focus on her job as a corporate risk manager and other responsibilities.
The group quickly became popular among conservative pundits and leaders, with Descovich appearing on the Rush Limbaugh Show in late January. DeSantis invited Quisha King, a Jacksonville group member, to join him at an October press conference held to tout parental rights and denounce mask mandates.
The group’s ties to Republican leaders prompted speculation that Moms for Liberty is bankrolled by GOP donors with deep pockets. Because the group is so new its financial records with the Internal Revenue Service haven’t been made public.
Descovich said Moms for Liberty is supported through small donations and merchandise sales. The group’s online store offers t-shirts and hats and a Moms for Liberty flag that costs $75.
“We are open to any big donor,” Descovich said.
King, the Jacksonville mother who worked for Blacks for Trump, made clear what Moms for Liberty’s political goals were when she joined DeSantis at his press conference last month.
“We certainly need to elect competent school board members who will stand up for parents’ rights,” she said, “and I will fight for any parent who wants to run for school board.”
Central Florida members said they plan to be involved in 2022 school board races, supporting candidates who share their view that “parental rights” should take center stage. It is a message they think will resonate in Florida just as it did in the Virginia governor’s race.
“That proved that parents are paying attention,” Griffin said, “and, yes, parents, as a whole, are a force to be reckoned with.”