As Moms for Liberty Meets in Philadelphia, Don’t Underestimate Their Extremism and the Threat They Pose

They are not just MAGA culture warriors banning books and fomenting anti-LGBTQ hysteria and hate. They are part of a national network of right-wing activists on a crusade to dismantle public education.
Parental rights really means MAGA parents deciding for everyone what your child can read and learn about in public schools.

By now, you’ve heard of them. But you may not know just how corrosive and destructive they are. You probably don’t know how far they’ve penetrated Pennsylvania, one of their biggest states outside of their home state of Florida.

And you probably don’t know the true Moms for Liberty origin story.

Perhaps you’ve heard the version they prefer to push out, as regurgitated by Steve Ulrich for Politics PA:

It was January, 2021. COVID-19 was entering its second calendar year and the country had yet to re-open.

A pair of former Florida school board members, Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, had reached a boiling point. They were outraged by pandemic restrictions and mask mandates and sought for a way to rally like-minded women and others to oppose them.

And Moms For Liberty was born.

It’s a pretty story, but not quite right. This version scrubs away a third co-founder, Bridget Ziegler. She disappeared from the story pretty quickly, perhaps because her links to Florida’s GOP establishment are so clearly visible. She’s married to Christian Ziegler, a political operative with a PR firm.  He pulled in $300K from a Trump-related PAC. He was once a Heritage Foundation Fellow. He’s buddies with Corey LewandowskiHe appears to be behind the Protect Wyoming Values PAC (a Trump anti-Liz Cheney proxy). He was at Trump’s January 6 rally. And in February, after had been “effectively… campaigning for the job for years,” Christian Ziegler was elected Florida’s GOP party chair. 

And, more to the point, Christian Ziegler told the Washington Post that he has been “trying for 20- and 30-year old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” That was in October of 2021, when his wife’s involvement had already been shoved down the memory hole.

But even if we put Bridget Ziegler back at the kitchen table in January of 2021, that’s not yet the complete origin of Moms for Liberty.

For that, we have to go back to the beginning of 2015. Four Florida school board members were unhappy with the Florida School Board Association, particularly its lawsuit filed in opposition of the state’s new school voucher program, so they formed a new group —t he Florida Coalition of School Board Members. ExcelInEd, Jeb Bush’s pro-school choice advocacy group greeted them with glowing praise

READ: To Understand Groups Like Moms For Liberty And The Republican Party’s MAGA Base, Look To The John Birch Society

The founding members included Erika Donalds, a former New York investment banker turned Florida Tea Partier, now a high-powered choice advocate in Florida who is CEO of her own charter school company and married to a state legislator. Also in on the ground floor was Shawn Frost, who has worked hard to become an education politics power player in Florida. 

Other folks passed through the organization in the years ahead, including Anne Corcoran, wife of Florida’s pro-privatization legislator-turned-Education Commissioner-turned chief of New College; Rebecca Negron, the wife of the state senator who helped write the tax credit scholarship voucher bill; and Eric Robinson, former GOP party chair and sometimes called “The Prince of Dark Money.” 

In other words, a group of people well connected in the world of pro-privatization politics in Florida.

In that group from Day One: Bridget Ziegler. Joining her soon after was Tina Descovich, who was elected to Brevard County School Board with a signature issue of her opposition to Common Core. Descovich ran on two decades in business and a degree in Communications, as well as serving on the executive staff of a US Army Commanding General. Soon after joining the group, Descovich was its president.

READ: Pulling Back The Curtain On The Leadership Institute’s Dominion Over Moms For Liberty

FCSBM operated for a few years, giving out awards and working legislative connections as it ”consistently fought above its weight” to win “key battles on school choice, charters and other hot-button education issues.” But the group ran out of steam, and in May of 2020, Descovich and Ziegler filed for voluntary dissolution of FCSBM. 

Within a few months, they were ready with a new operation. On December 10, Descovich and new MFL founder Tiffany Justice were posting about the launch of the new group; Descovich even had a picture of thirteen women already wearing the group’s t-shirt and displaying their logo. 

It’s not just that Moms for liberty was founded by women with political connections and savvy, but that they had been working at conservative anti-public education advocacy for years. Those connections and prior experience make it less puzzling that the group somehow had money up front for t-shirts and logo design. 

The speed with which the group launched was impressive. They claimed fundraising by selling t-shirts on Facebook, but that would not begin to account for receipts of a half a million dollars in their first year. And they benefited from more than just anonymous donors writing $100K checks.

As Maurice Cunningham, author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, has noted, by the end of the January, they had appeared on the Rush Limbaugh Show; soon they moved on to score appearances or shout outs from Breitbart, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, Fox News, and Steve Bannon’s War Room. In just six months they had achieved the kind of media presence that most plucky t-shirt moms wouldn’t dream of, and which many like-minded groups that have existed for much longer have never commanded.

Maybe they were just the right group at the right time, but it’s also worth noting the story of one of Christian Ziegler’s other clients. You may remember Andrew Pollack, the Parkland parent who came out against gun control and in favor of hardening the target, getting an invite to Trump’s White House among other places. How did he get such big exposure so quickly? Let Pollack explain himself:

Just days after the Parkland shooting, Christian with Microtargeted Media reached out and offered to help guide me with my communications, press relations and he launched my social media outreach channels, giving me vital distribution channels to get my message out. Christian also helped connect me with his network of elected leaders, so that I could advocate for and eventually pass school safety legislation. This was all done pro-bono and simply because he had a passion to help.

After launching as anti-masking, M4L pivoted swiftly to the parental rights and cultural warfare position they’re best known for. They tried to sell themselves as non-partisan at first, but the mask didn’t stay on long. In 2021, they briefly hired Quisha King, a PR consultant who worked as a “regional engagement coordinator” with Black Voices for Trump in 2020, but was often billed as “just a mom” (she is one of the few non-white faces to ever appear with M4L, but she no longer seems to be working with them). It was King who, speaking for M4L, called for a “mass exodus from the public school system.”

They hosted a big money fund raiser with Fox News host Megyn Kelly headlining. They gave Ron DeSantis a sword as an award for his work to promote “freedom.” They’ve worked with DeSantis in his crusade to win conservative majorities on local school boards in Florida.

Their ties to MAGA politics remain constantly in play. Ziegler is chair of the Sarasota school board, a “laboratory for far-right education policies.” She also works as Vice President of School Board Leadership Programs for the Leadership Institute, an organization that specializes in getting right wing candidates elected to office. 

Descovich friend Marie Rogerson stepped into Ziegler’s shoes on the M4L board; she’s an experienced political strategist who had previously managed the 2018 campaign of Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican. Fine, in turn, is the state rep who publicized the phone number of Jennifer Jenkins, the woman who ousted Descovich from the Brevard County school board and who consequently was targeted for harassment by the Brevard County Moms for Liberty and their allies.

Moms for Liberty has pushed for reading restrictions and gag laws at both state and local level, and once those rules are passed, they are quick to use them to repress any discussions of race, gender or sexuality. And there’s no nuance in the discussion. “Pornography” covers everything from graphic depiction of a sexual act to a book about a penguin with two dads. Try to inject nuance into the discussion, and you may find yourself branded a groomer or pedophile.

In Tennessee, the M4L chapter demanded the removal of books like a child’s biography of Ruby Bridges that shows angry white segregationist crowds. That same chapter pushed for the removal of a book about seahorses, declaring it too sensual (and also depicting males carrying the fertilized eggs—which is what seahorses do).  

A Florida M4L chapter convinced a mother to withdraw counseling for her gay son; after he attempted suicide, they tried to convince her to sue the Rainbow Youth Project for “damaging” her gay son. A chapter communications officer in Arkansas said that librarians should be “plowed down with a freaking gun.” After New Hampshire’s legislature passed a teacher gag law, a Moms for Liberty chapter offered a $500 bounty for anyone who turned in a teacher violating the law. In Colorado, a chapter chair explained that there is a “high level coordinated effort to make more children trans and gay” as a way of undermining traditional families and traditional values, for political purposes. And the Hamilton County chapter of Indiana just put out their first newsletter – with an Adolph Hitler quote in the masthead.

The M4L playbook has involved bullying, threats, and denial. They bill themselves as “joyful warriors,” and join Ron DeSantis in claiming that reports of book bans are “a hoax.” They argue they did not demand that Amanda Gorman’s poem (the one presented to the entire nation at President Biden’s inauguration) be banned — only put out of reach of certain younger children. No bans, they say — just  curation.

At the same time, they come hard for their perceived enemies. Here’s Tiffany Justice on Steve Bannon’s show:

BANNON: Are we going to start taking over the school boards?

JUSTICE: Absolutely. We’re going to take over the school boards, but that’s not enough. Once we replace the school boards, what we need to do is we need to have search firms, that are conservative search firms, that help us to find new educational leaders, because parents are going to get in there and they’re going to want to fire everyone.

In Berkely County School District in South Carolina, six M4L-endorsed board members were sworn in, then immediately fired the district’s in-house counsel and the superintendent. M4L’s standard tactic is to pressure a local board, and if it won’t bend, then find candidates to replace them; in 2022 they say they backed 500 candidates, 275 of whom were elected.

And their tools for pressure can be very intimidating in Livingston County, Michigan, the MFL chapter posted a threatening message in their Facebook group regarding the administration’s warning about threats of violence against board members: “Not a single person on the right side of the aisle better be backing this, if they are they better be prepared to be REMOVED 1776 style.” David Gilbert at Vice News is among the reporters who have found M4L teamed up with Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and sovereign citizen groups. “Around the country, Moms for Liberty has formed links with extremist groups and militias, which are joining forces with the “parental rights” group at protests and school board meetings.” 

Moms for Liberty organizes via county-level chapters, and currently the number is approaching 300. Of those, 27 are in Pennsylvania. Only Florida has more chapters.

The Pennsylvania M4L has come out against four bills intended to tighten enforcement of hate crimes, ethnic intimidation, and hate incidents in educational settings. Ironically, this organization that has worked so hard to suppress certain books and speech charges that the bills would “weaponize cancel culture and chill free speech.”

Pennsylvania’s chapters are of varying size and activity, with most in the southeastern corner of the state. Each chapter has a Facebook page, and eight Pennsylvania chapters have under 100 members for their group. The largest group is Bucks County, with 1,100 followers. The Moms for Liberty website shows seven Pennsylvania chapters without current leaders, though all have Facebook group followers.

The Monroe County chapter chair allegedly hijacked a murdered woman’s Facebook profile in order to harass enemies, and was convicted of harassing a member of the Stop Moms for Liberty group. In York County, the Girls Who Code book series, a series of books aimed at showing girls that computer programming is cool,  was banned for 10 months

The chair of the Pike County chapter, Kerry Williams, has close ties to the Rod of Iron Ministries, a religious sect that has protested masking and school closings loudly at school board meetings and worships with AR-15s. The group is headed by Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon; it’s a spinoff of the Unification Church, famously run by Moon’s father, Sun Myung Moon, who considered himself the second coming of Christ and whose followers you will remember as “Moonies.”

Some chapter chairs come already connected for the work. Dauphin County chair Emily Kreps works as a legal assistant at the Pennsylvania Family Institute, whose stated goal is “for Pennsylvania to be a place where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.” PFI has been linked to the development and support of book banning policies in the state, particular at Central Bucks School District, where M4L was major player in the push for book banning.

In Cumberland County, M4L chapter chair Allison Shipp helped connect conservative parents with the America First Legal Foundation, a far right legal outfit headed by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller. America First pushes a bonkers legal theory that says the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment should be read by the Supreme Court to mean that only the federal government cannot establish a religion, allowing each state to establish an official state religion. They advised the Cumberland parents in their lawsuit against the use of Character Strong, a widely used program aimed at helping students become “thoughtful, healthy and kind human beings.” Says one of the parents suing the district, “not everyone deserves respect, empathy, honesty, kindness etc. from my children.”

While Moms for Liberty has most of the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania covered, the one county where they do not have an active group is Philadelphia. There is a Facebook group with 45 members; the administrators are the national group, Pat Blackburn (the national chapter coordinator), and Sheila Armstrong. Armstrong is the woman who shared her personal grief over gun violence at a campaign event with Dr. Oz, without anyone mentioning that she was a paid member of the campaign staff. In April, she launched a new Pennsylvania chapter office of the Black Conservatives Federation

Philadelphia will host the Moms For Liberty annual summit, and it’s a measure of their growth that both MAGA and MAGA wannabes will be there. The speakers list now includes Dennis Prager, Mark Robinson, Byron Donalds, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Donald Trump. 

At the summit, expect the usual. The Moms will play the victim card, continuing to claim “that  a coordinated effort underway aimed at marginalizing and discrediting the serious concerns of our members.” They will point to their designation by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group as a badge of honor.

SPLC framed M4L as part of a long history of “parental rights” activism centered around fighting any sort of inclusive education. “Like the mothers of massive resistance before them, Moms for Liberty is ready to fight tooth and nail to preserve the unseen but understood caste system existing in their public schools and communities.”

But beyond that, as witnessed by that speakers list, M4L has become what Christian Ziegler hoped for — a tool for energizing a portion of the conservative base. On the local level, in many locations, Moms for Liberty has harnessed real concern over real issues. Drawing a line of appropriateness for materials can be challenging, and partnering with parents is always the ideal, but sometimes challenging (and not all schools always do it well).

But they have also managed to effectively whip up more fear and anger that can be directed at driving the so-called bad people out of schools, local government, and state and national office. By painting themselves as underdogs in a righteous crusade “For The Children”, these joyful warriors can justify intimidation, harassment, bullying and concerted efforts to silence certain viewpoints. 

And not always, but too often, these kinds of tactics work. As a teacher who is leaving the profession told me, “I can’t live and work where I’m not safe.”Christian nationalism is on the march, particularly in education. Frederick Clarkson, in a recent Salon article, suggests that Pennsylvania is at the top of the target list for a far-right movement of dominionists who want to capture the “seven mountains“: religion, family, education, government, media, entertainment and business. In that conception, public education as we know it would be gutted, the evil secular element driven out, and a pure Christian system of indoctrination put in its place. It’s not hard to see the path to that future that starts with Descovich’s promise to fire everyone.

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Picture of Peter Greene

Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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