Florida sex scandal shakes mothers seeking freedom as group's influence wanes


Moms for Liberty, a national right-wing advocacy group, was born in Florida in response to Covid-19 school closures and mask mandates. But he quickly became equally known for pushing policies called anti-LGBTQ by his opponents.

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

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

Sells was one of dozens of speakers who criticized Ziegler (and Moms for Liberty) at the rally, an outcry that underscored the group's prominence in the most contentious debates of the pandemic era.

Perhaps no group gained as much influence so quickly, transforming educational issues from a dormant political backwater to a rallying cry for Republican politicians. The organization quickly became a conservative powerhouse, a coveted endorsement and a must-see stop on the Republican Party's presidential primary campaign.

However, as Moms for Liberty reels from the scandal surrounding the Zieglers, the group's power appears to be waning. Candidates backed by the group lost a series of key school board elections in 2023. The losses have raised questions about the future of education issues as an animating force in Republican politics.

Donald J. Trump, the dominant favorite for the party's nomination, makes only passing reference in his speeches to preserving “parental rights,” the slogan of the group's cause. Issues such as school curricula, transgender student rights and teaching about race were much less prominent in the three Republican primary debates than abortion rights, foreign policy and the economy. And the most prominent defender of conservative views on education, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, has yet to unite conservatives behind his difficult presidential bid.

John Fredericks, a Trump ally in Virginia, said the causes Moms for Liberty became best known for — policies that banned books they deemed pornographic, restricted the teaching of LGBTQ issues and controlled how race is taught in schools — had fallen far from many voters. 'main concerns.

“Schools were closed and people were upset about it. The schools are now open,” she said. “Freedom Moms really need to target math, science and reading, rather than focusing on critical race theory and drag queen story hours.”

And he added: “It's nonsense, all of this.”

Moms for Liberty's two other founders, Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, have distanced themselves from Ziegler, saying she has not been an official with the national organization since early 2021. Ziegler has not responded to requests for comment on the investigation against her. husband or calls for his resignation.

In a statement, Descovich and Justice dismissed criticism that the group was hypocritical. They argue that he is not opposed to racial justice or LGBTQ rights, but that he wants to give parents control over their children's education.

“To our opponents who have spewed hateful vitriol over the past few days: we reject your attacks,” Ms. Descovich and Ms. Justice said. “We are very focused on the fundamental rights of parents, and that mission is and always will be bigger than one person.”

Ms. Justice declined to answer questions about her organization's continued influence or its electoral losses.

Nearly 60 percent of the 198 school board candidates endorsed by Moms for Freedom in contested races in 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 have about 130,000 members.

Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, found in a recent study that the group had a huge presence in liberal counties and battlegrounds. However, in those areas, the policies advocated by Moms For Liberty are generally unpopular.

“Politics has turned against Freedom Moms, and they are making more people vote against them than for them,” Valant said.

In November, the group announced it had removed the presidents of two Kentucky chapters after they posed in photos with members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. This occurred several months after a Moms for Liberty chapter in Indiana cited Adolf Hitler in its inaugural newsletter. The previous year, Ziegler publicly denied having ties to the Proud Boys after posing for a photo with a member of the group at his election night victory party.

The episodes have transformed the group's image and distanced it from the voters it once claimed to represent. At one point, the group was particularly strong in the northern Virginia suburbs, where education problems helped propel Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, to victory in the 2021 gubernatorial race. (This year, Youngkin failed in his notorious attempt to get Republicans to take control of the Virginia House of Representatives).

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

On social media, Donohue, a former government lawyer and mother of two young children, faced an avalanche 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 large majority of parents seemed more concerned about practical issues like math and reading scores, support for special education and expanding technical and technical programs. vocational.

Donohue won his seat by nearly seven percentage points.

“There “It’s a setback now,” he 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 education system that we have to fix, focusing on culture war issues is not is working. that.”

One place where Moms for Liberty maintains a stronger influence is the state where the group may have had the most influence: Florida.

Since forming in 2020, the group has aligned itself with DeSantis, supporting his parental rights in education law that critics dubbed “Don't Say Gay.” The law prohibits classroom instruction on LGBTQ issues.

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

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

Ms. Jenkins, an outspoken critic of Moms for Freedom who took Ms. Descovich's seat on the school board in 2020, said the organization, though small, had remained active at board meetings school, with about 10 regular attendees who sometimes bring people from Indian River and other nearby counties with them.

“Their members are definitely more extreme than ever,” said Jenkins, who has been a frequent target of the group. They picketed his house, sent him threatening emails and, he said, took photos of him at the grocery store just a couple of weeks ago.

On Tuesday, some members of Brevard and Indian River County Moms for Freedom attended a Brevard County School Board meeting to protest books they say should be removed 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 president, whom Moms for Liberty and 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 use of the material.” In other words, stopping reading would effectively result in removing the book from schools, board members said.

“I strongly encourage everyone to read this statute,” Julie Bywater, a member of the Brevard County chapter of Moms for Freedom, told the school board.

These types of tactics have become typical of Moms for Liberty members. In response, opponents have begun showing up in force at school board meetings, trying to counter the group's message, including in Sarasota, where Ziegler's critics flocked to try to oust her.

The school board, which includes several conservatives who have previously aligned themselves with Ms. Ziegler, voted 4-1 on Tuesday in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on her to resign; Mrs. Ziegler was the only one on the council who voted against it.

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