Written by Maurice Cunningham, Our Schools
Moms for Liberty (M4L) claims the organization was started by moms.
But it is hard to believe that three mothers in Florida could start up a grassroots group on January 1, 2021, and then, within a matter of weeks and months, wind up on Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson’s show, Glenn Beck, and Fox News. However, there is a shadowy network of money and influence in right-wing political circles that could arrange that easily.
Among M4L’s financial supporters and profile boosters are some of the most influential organizations, media operations, and wealthy donors in the vast theater of the right-wing propaganda machine.
And it would be a mistake to believe M4L’s agenda is exclusively about maternal concerns over what children learn in schools. Instead, most of the organization’s purported success seems to be in helping to advance a much broader right-wing political agenda through electoral politics. In its short history, M4L has already been credited with helping to engineer a “massive victory,” according to Salon, and ensuring a string of wins for a number of Republican candidates in school board elections across Florida.
Looking ahead at the upcoming elections, M4L is expected to provide the “foot soldiers” for the reelection bid of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and many also expect to see the M4L soldiering for DeSantis in the 2024 presidential race.
The Rise of Moms for Liberty
Moms for Liberty was inaugurated on January 1, 2021, and filed as an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation—a “social welfare” group structure that allows it substantial leeway to participate in politics, including taking unlimited sums of dark money and dispensing those dollars in support of favored candidates.
M4L was born into a full-scale right-wing media rollout. As Olivia Little of Media Matters reported in July 2022, M4L debuted on The Rush Limbaugh Show in January 2021—right out of the cradle. M4L representatives have since appeared “on Fox News at least 16 times and Steve Bannon’s War Room at least 14 times,” according to Little. As her reporting and my own investigation in April 2021 indicated, M4L initially had practically no members or state infrastructure. But appearances on Fox and fawning treatment in right-wing outlets like Breitbart News and Glenn Beck propelled its growth.
By June 11, 2021, M4L threw a fundraiser called “Fearless: An Evening with Megyn Kelly,” the former Fox News celebrity. The highest-priced ticket of $20,000 for the “presenting sponsor” included 20 tickets to a meet-and-greet along with a photo with Megyn Kelly and came with many other benefits. There were other offers that included lesser benefits for donors making contributions of $15,000 or $10,000 and the general admission was $50.
On January 14 and 15, 2022, M4L co-hosted the “American Dream Conference” in Franklin, Tennessee, featuring musicians like Larry Gatlin and John Rich. Weekend tickets went for $100. The keynote speaker was former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretary Ben Carson.
M4L’s grandest event thus far has been its national summit, which took place between July 14 and 17, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. The national summit featured speeches by DeSantis, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, Carson, former Florida Governor and current U.S. Senator Rick Scott, and Trump’s former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who advocated for the abolition of the department she had led, according to Florida Phoenix.
The highest-priced sponsorship for the national summit was a presenting sponsor that had a $50,000 price tag. That sold out, but eager moms could purchase and become sponsors by paying anything between $2,500 and $30,000.
M4L isn’t just in the conference business. It has an actively managed social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. M4L has registered three federal political action committees, one of them is a Super PAC, and also has a registered Florida political action committee. According to an IRS search, 79 501(c)(4) nonprofits have registered across the country as Moms for Liberty affiliates.
‘We Do Sell a Lot of T-Shirts’
Operating such sophisticated undertakings takes a lot of money, contacts, organizational capacity, resources, and expertise. Yet when a reporter for the 74 asked who is funding M4L, co-founder of the organization Tina Descovich said, “We do sell a lot of T-shirts,” adding that money received from these sales was the “biggest funding source” for the organization.
In a July 20, 2022, C-Span appearance, Descovich added that the organization received some additional funding for the national summit in the $2,500-$5,000 range from conservative organizations, but stuck with the narrative about most of the funding coming from T-shirt sales.
During the interview, she also suggested that M4L was working on its Form 990; these charitable tax returns that eventually become public, are expected to help provide financial information about the organization. But the forms eventually submitted convey little information and provide almost no details about donors.
In April 2022, Newsweek reported co-founders Descovich and Tiffany Justice admitting, “They recently got some bigger donations from more prominent sources, though they’re happy to keep them a secret for as long as they’re legally able to [do] so.”
Nonetheless, some information about the funders has emerged. In June 2022, Moms for Liberty Florida’s political action committee took a $50,000 contribution from Publix heiress Julie Fancelli, Politico reported. Fancelli provided $300,000 in funding to the January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally, according to Daily Mail, a contribution brokered by Infowars radio host Alex Jones.
Moms for Liberty and the Council for National Policy
In Descovich’s C-Span appearance, a caller asked her whether M4L was getting funding from the Council for National Policy (CNP) or from Charles Koch. Koch and CNP are two of the most prominent funding networks behind various right-wing causes. Descovich denied receiving any direct Koch money and professed to be unfamiliar with CNP. But there is substantial evidence that CNP has been vital to M4L’s rise.
“The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by a group of televangelists, Western oligarchs, and Republican strategists to capitalize on Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory the previous year,” wrote journalist and author Anne Nelson, for the Washington Spectator. “Operating from the shadows, its members, who would number some 400, spent the next four decades courting, buying, and bullying fellow Republicans, gradually achieving what was in effect a leveraged buyout of the GOP.”
In her 2019 book, Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Nelson exposed the CNP as combining vast sums of conservative money, Christian nationalists and their communications networks, and activist groups like the National Rifle Association into a powerful organization. Among the CNP’s wish list of policy preferences, according to Nelson, is taking down public education and replacing it with privatized schools that practice religious-based indoctrination.
M4L’s connections to the CNP and its many network nodes are numerous. Betsy DeVos, who spoke at the M4L’s national summit, and members of her family, have “supported” CNP, according to Rolling Stone. A 2014 CNP membership directory that the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained and posted online in 2016 does not list Betsy DeVos but does include her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, as a member of the CNP board of governors and among its “Gold Circle Members.”
The other co-host of the American Dream conference M4L helped throw, the Be the People Project, was founded by Carol Swain, a CNP member, according to a recent CNP membership directory Documented posted in 2022.
Other connections between M4L and CNP run through the Leadership Institute (LI), an educational foundation. LI is an affiliate of CNP, and LI president Morton Blackwell is a member and founder of CNP, according to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). According to the institute website, LI “prepares conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media,” and it “has trained more than 250,000 students.”
LI was the largest donor for M4L’s 2022 national summit and the sole known $50,000 presenting sponsor, and attendees of the summit could join LI campaign trainings, WUSF Public Media reported.
Other connections M4L has to CNP have come through the organization’s many associations with other organizations and individuals in the conservative movement.
The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America were sponsors of M4L’s national summit. The Heritage Foundation was also a “meeting sponsor” of CNP’s 2022 annual conference, according to an agenda obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy. A description of a session led by the Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts stated that the foundation has been “a core partner of the Council for National Policy from the start, and Heritage president Kevin Roberts is on the CNP board of governors.”
In 2022 the Heritage Foundation awarded its annual Henry Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship to M4L. M4L leaders presented at Heritage forums in 2021 and 2022. The organization also features materials from both Heritage and LI on its website in addition to recommending the book, The Making of America by the late W. Cleon Skousen, a former CNP member, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Another thread on the web linking M4L to CNP connects to Turning Point USA (TPUSA), according to the CMD’s Sourcewatch website. Turning Point USA, according to Sourcewatch, is a conservative youth and student group funded by right-wing donors that “has faced numerous allegations of racial discrimination.” It has operated the Professor Watchlist to expose what it considers to be radically left college and university professors and now operates a School Board Watchlist to do the same for local school boards. TPUSA was an M4L National Summit participant, NBC News reported, and its president Charlie Kirk is a CNP member, according to Wikipedia.
M4L’s frequent ally Parents Defending Education, a $5,000 bronze sponsor of the national summit, is headed by veteran Koch operative Nicole Neily. Charles Koch, while not a CNP member, has had plenty of cross-influence with CNP and recently increased his clout within the group, according to Anne Nelson.
It is not clear when the ties between M4L and CNP and LI started, but in July 2022, still early in M4L’s formation, Dylan Craig, digital marketing coordinator for LI, wrote on the institute’s website that “[M4L] got advice from my boss, Morton Blackwell, and used Leadership Institute trainings and sheer determination to quickly become a national force.”
Craig also boasted about the role LI had in running the M4L national summit: “I’m proud to say Leadership Institute partnered with Moms for Liberty and supported the Summit as the top sponsor, official photographers/videographers, trainers, and all-around support. LI held training for attendees on Candidate Vetting, Grassroots Lobbying, Communications, Running for Office, Strategic Research, Vote Goals, and four hours of Media Training. Now, 150 more conservatives are trained to advance their principles in their local communities.”
M4L’s Connections to January 6
Perhaps unsurprisingly, M4L’s many connections in the right-wing cosmos lead to white nationalists, election denialists, and those who took part in the January 6 insurrection. First, there is the $50,000 gift M4L got from Julie Fancelli, who funded the rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol. But there are other ties.
Alexis Spiegelman, who is, according to her LinkedIn page, M4L’s Florida legislative chair and Sarasota County chapter chair, entered into an arrangement with conservative political consultant Roger Stone, one of the organizers of the “Stop the Steal” event that preceded the riot at the Capitol, to pressure Senator Rick Scott to challenge Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, according to Florida Politics.
CNP member Charlie Kirk bragged on Twitter about sending 80 buses to the January 6 rally, according to Daily Dot. He later deleted the tweet.
“As early as February 2020, the CNP and its advisers were already anticipating various strategies to overturn the results of the election in the event of the loss of either the popular vote or the Electoral College, or both,” Anne Nelson reported for the Washington Spectator.
A chief organizer of the “Stop the Steal” campaign that brought Trump proponents to the Capitol on January 6, Ali Alexander, was “sometimes known as ‘Ali Akbar,’ the name he was listed under as a member of the CNP [in] 2017 and 2018 rosters,” according to Nelson.
After the election results confirmed a Biden win, CNP operatives gathered at a special meeting from November 12 to 14 to organize how to overturn the results in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, according to Nelson. “On December 10, CNP’s Conservative Action Project published a letter stating, ‘There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election,’” Nelson reported, and “CNP affiliates took action on a local level,” to call on Trump supporters to descend on Washington, D.C.
“The CNP’s affiliates were by no means acting alone in attempting to overturn the results of the election,” Nelson conceded, but, “What is irrefutable is that members of the CNP and their circle exerted their influence and manipulated their followers to support Trump’s lies about the stolen election and his effort to derail the electoral process.”
Foot Soldiers for DeSantis
An even closer connection between M4L and January 6 runs through Christian Ziegler, husband of M4L co-founder Bridget Ziegler and vice chair of the Florida Republican Party.
Christian Ziegler was at the Capitol on January 6, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, although he said he watched the scene from afar and, “didn’t see anyone breaking stuff.”
The Zieglers also provide a primary conduit of influence linking to Florida Governor DeSantis and his strong-arming of the state’s education policies.
Bridget Ziegler, who was the third co-founder of M4L, stepped down from her leadership position in the organization in February 2021, but spoke at the national summit and remains active. She also helped write, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Florida’s Parents’ Bills of Rights, aka the Don’t Say Gay law, that bans instruction of LGBTQ topics in grades K-3 in schools, gives parents more leeway in filing lawsuits against public school curriculum, and requires schools to divulge to parents when their children use mental health services, according to the Washington Post.
Bridget Ziegler won reelection to the Sarasota County School Board in 2022. Vice News reported that she and another M4L-supported candidate were photographed at an election night celebration with two members of the extremist Proud Boys, “one of whom posed flashing the OK sign, a known white-power dog whistle.”
Her political action committee received a $10,000 donation from Caroline Wetherington, who is a CNP member and co-founder of Women for Trump, according to CMD. Wetherington attended the January 6 rally in Washington, according to CBS Los Angeles, and heads a group called Defend Florida “which helped coordinate an April rally featuring Michael Flynn and Roger Stone that attracted white nationalists, [and] claims to have 5,571 affidavits alleging ‘voting irregularities’ across Florida,” according to Axios Tampa Bay.
Shortly after her school board election victory, Bridget Ziegler was hired by the Leadership Institute to be the director of the organization’s school board programs, SRQ20 reported. She will retain her position on the Sarasota board, according to that source.
Christian Ziegler gave away the politics of M4L to the Washington Post suggesting, as the Post put it, that he expected M4L to “become foot soldiers” for DeSantis’s reelection campaign. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party,” he said, “and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. … But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”
Governor DeSantis has made “clear” that M4L—an operation that was not even in existence until he was halfway through his first term—“is a key part of [his] strategy”to replace nonpartisan local school board members with advocates of a decidedly right-wing political agenda, reported TCPalm.
Making endorsements in local school board races is unusual for a traditionally nonpartisan office, but at M4L’s national summit, his wife Casey DeSantis told the audience that the governor’s endorsement could elevate the name recognition critical to an electoral success of M4L-backed candidates “and [open] up potential resources to help that candidate run a successful campaign,” according to Florida Politics.
In turn, DeSantis has made a concerted effort to advance prominent members of M4L and promote the interests of the organization. He appointed to the Florida Board of Education Esther Byrd, a “Moms for Liberty member known for making social media posts supportive of the Capitol insurrection and being photographed on a boat flying the QAnon flag,” according to the 74.
Politico reported, DeSantis “handpicked to amplify his criticism of critical race theory” M4L Miami chapter chair Eulalia Maria Jimenez who has “espoused views aligned with QAnon conspiracy theories and appears to support those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.”
When PayPal suspended M4L from its services, Florida’s Voice reported that DeSantis came to the organization’s rescue, threatening to punish “‘woke’ banking.” PayPal unfroze M4L’s account.
When M4L presented DeSantis with an award at its national summit, co-founder Justice remarked that she had spoken to mothers across the country who “cannot wait to vote for him for president,” Tallahassee Democrat reported.
Given the M4L’s 501(c)(4) dark money operations have already been established across the nation, including in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s reasonable to believe these operations will be part of DeSantis’s plan to run for president.
One of CNP’s ‘Obedient Franchises’
The Council for National Policy, and much of the conservative movement it has so successfully commandeered, has made it unmistakable that it wants to destroy public education and privatize schooling. CNP has designs to educate children outside of public schools in order to reorient education toward Christian nationalism and transform the culture of the nation. To do this, CNP knows it must break the teachers’ unions.
Moms for Liberty may prove to be a useful agent for furthering that goal. Following an article by the conservative National Review blaming teachers for falling test scores during the COVID-19 crisis, M4L blasted an email, which Our Schools has a copy of, to media organizations amplifying the message, and M4L leaders Justice and Descovich have adopted right-wing bumper stickers for “parents to fire the unions,” according to the email, and have taken to calling teachers and their unions “the K-12 cartel,” a term straight out of the conservative lexicon authored by the movement’s most prominent advocacy organizations.
The “moms” who founded and lead M4L have a mission, but they aren’t really founders of anything new. Instead, like many other right-wing conservative operations, they are agents of those at CNP with money, religious fervor, and political connections. To borrow a term from Anne Nelson’s book, Moms for Liberty appears to be one of CNP’s “obedient franchises.”
This article was produced by Our Schools and was republished with permission.
Maurice Cunningham PhD, JD, retired in 2021 as an associate professor of political science at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.