Pulling Back the Curtain on the Leadership Institute’s Dominion Over Moms for Liberty

Leadership Institute founder Morton Blackwell, who is also behind the Council for National Policy, has advocated for abolishing public schools and replacing them with “free-market private schools, church schools, and home schools.”
Photo courtesy of Illinois Families for Public Schools.

Remember in the Wizard of Oz when the cloth is pulled back and “the great and powerful Oz” warns “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”? Moms for Liberty has a curtain too. They’ll present themselves as suburban moms at their national summit in Philadelphia, but behind the curtain is Morton Blackwell, a right-wing patriarch who has been around so long he was a 1964 Goldwater delegate. 

Moms for Liberty (M4L) has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group, has been identified by PENAmerica as leading the country’s book banning movement, and called out by the Human Rights Campaign in its recent declaration of a national emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans. It celebrated a Hitler quote then apologized for the reference but not the substance of his ideas about education.

Blackwell founded the Leadership Institute (LI) in 1979 to train conservative activists. LI has asserted virtual dominion over M4L’s operations. Blackwell is also a co-founder of the Council for National Policy, which has advocated for abolishing public schools and voluntarily replacing them with “free-market private schools, church schools, and home schools.” M4L co-founder Tiffany Justice, appearing on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, boasted:

“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.”

LI and M4L teamed up for a School Board Activist Workshop in January 2022 and LI was responsible for three M4L School Board Activism and Campaign Trainings in February 2022. In early 2023 LI and M4L assembled an Iowa Town Hall featuring Governor Kim Reynolds, a Story Telling Workshop, Grassroots Fundraising and a busy week of trainings in Maryland, New York, and Georgia including appearances by Betsy DeVos and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green

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LI was the largest sponsor for M4L’s first summit last year in Tampa. A national conference is a difficult undertaking for a one-year-old organization like M4L, but it is business as usual for the Leadership Institute. Speakers included Governor Ron DeSantis, Senator Rick Scott, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson. LI’s Dylan Craig wrote:

“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.” 

Leadership Institute is a lead sponsor for M4L’s 2023 summit, which features appearances from Republican presidential candidates including Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump. LI will again oversee training. As Kyle Spencer writes in Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power, LI’s trainings produce “ruthless operatives schooled in the magic art of what Blackwell called ‘political technology.’”

Bridget Ziegler is an M4L co-founder. After she was re-elected to her own school board seat, Blackwell hired her to run Leadership Institute’s School Board Campaign Trainings. Ziegler had resigned from the M4L board in February 2021, to be succeeded by LI graduate Marie Rogerson. 

Prior to her roles with M4L and the Leadership Institute, Ziegler had been a co-founder and president of the right-wing Florida Coalition of School Board Members. When Ziegler left her presidency she was succeeded by Tina Descovich, a communications professional and later, with Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. M4L claims it is grassroots but it is really political professionals.

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

M4L has registered over one hundred 501(c4)s (political dark money vehicles) with the IRS. One high ranking figure told the New Yorker that M4L is a “media company.” In Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Anne Nelson shows that a combination of organization and media is Morton Blackwell’s philosophy. 

Look behind the curtain. You may not like what you see.

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Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham, PhD., J.D., is author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization. He is a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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