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DeSantis finds friendly crowd at Moms for Liberty conference, but Trump’s influence runs deep

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia on June 30.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Class War

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How culture war politics are changing the shape of education around the country.

PHILADELPHIA — The protesters outside accused them of “bigotry” and “fascism.” The Southern Poverty Law Center called them an “extremist group.”

But, the way Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told it, they should be proud they were “under attack by the left.”

“That is a sign that we are winning,” he told the second annual conference of Moms for Liberty, the 2½-year-old group that has turned its battle cry for “parental rights” into a juggernaut that will draw no fewer than five Republican presidential candidates to a downtown hotel here over the course of the holiday weekend.

“If we do it right,” DeSantis added, “2024 is going to be the year when the parents across this country finally fight back.”

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It seemed like natural territory for DeSantis, who has made restricting teaching material in K-12 schools and taking greater control over higher education a signature of his governorship. But, a few hours later, the conference laid bare how quickly former president Donald Trump is moving to make up ground on these issues as he seeks to claim the nomination for himself next year — and how large he looms even among DeSantis’ obvious allies.

“They . . . label you as national security threats, they look at you as corrupt,” Trump told the hundreds of people in the crowd, after the conference seemed to practically come to a halt for more than an hour to accommodate his arrival. Over about an hour, he riled up the crowd, getting them to cheer and laugh before offering a slew of promises, such as cutting funding for any school teaching “critical race theory.”

I want to move our education system back to the states,” Trump said, without acknowledging that is where the power center is currently located.

Since its founding in January 2021, Moms for Liberty, a Florida-born organization that does not have to disclose its donors, has upended local politics by endorsing conservative candidates for school boards and generating headlines for aggressive rhetoric and tactics at public meetings. Its members have pushed back against mask mandates, critical race theory, and what they call the “indoctrination” of schoolchildren.

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Now they are training their focus on national politics, and the presence of so many presidential candidates this weekend — sprinkled among training sessions for activists from around the country — is a testament both to the group’s growing political power and the salience of hot-button education issues in 2024.

“You,” said cofounder Tiffany Justice, surveying the packed ballroom of members eating fruit salad and drinking orange juice from wineglasses, “have made parental rights and education a priority in America.”

The four-day conference, which began on Thursday evening at the Museum of the American Revolution and lasts until Sunday, featured strategy sessions on topics such as “Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization?” The group also scheduled sessions on messaging strategies, dark money, and “Holding the Line: How to win in the minority.”

Former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, another Republican presidential candidate and the only one who is a mom herself, addressed the crowd midday Friday. Two other GOP candidates, former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, were also scheduled to address the conference.

“There is nothing I love more than being in a room with a group of girlfriends,” Haley said, before a speech that decried critical race theory and transgender girls playing sports, a message that played well in the room.

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“How are we supposed to get our girls comfortable with biological boys in the locker room?” Haley asked.

The group was formed by Tina Descovich, a Florida parent and marketing professional who had just lost a school board race in Brevard County, Fla., and Justice, a former school board member from a neighboring county. Bridget Ziegler, of the Sarasota County school board, was another founder.

The women had tapped into a current of frustration over mask and vaccine requirements, school lockdowns, and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies, as well as some parents’ dislike of how the reckoning over racism after the murder of George Floyd might shape children’s education. Their numbers multiplied, and Moms for Liberty now has 285 chapters in 44 states and 120,000 members, according to Justice.

The group presents itself as a grass-roots success, but the organization has deep ties to Republican and conservative groups. Ziegler, who is no longer part of the organization’s leadership but was slated to speak at the conference, is married to Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida GOP. She said she now works for the Leadership Institute, which was a sponsor of the conference.

The organization has drawn sponsorship from other conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation. Its public relations firm, Cavalry, is run by Republican operatives with close ties to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

“This is no grass-roots operation,” said Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has tracked Moms for Liberty. Still, he acknowledged the group has had “quite a rise.”

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“I don’t think anybody has driven this culture war message like Moms for Liberty — I should probably call it an anti-equality message,” Cunningham said.

The group also has close ties to DeSantis, and its leadership presented him with a “liberty sword” during last year’s conference in Tampa. They have been deeply supportive of his “parents’ bill of rights” and “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits instruction about LGBTQ issues in schools.

On Friday, as DeSantis kicked off the conference with the first big speech of the day, Moms for Liberty leaders heaped praise on him, with national engagement director Tia Bess hailing the governor for “putting the power back in the hands of parents.” Justice asked him softball questions about campaigning with three children and how he would protect “fundamental rights.”

“What we’ve shown in Florida is that we leave no meat on the bone,” DeSantis said.

Yet there were clear signs of support for Trump throughout the venue in the hours before his arrival. A seller of T-shirts and hats had tacked up a handwritten sign that said “Trump merchandise” with an arrow pointing around a corner. There, people could buy mugs that said “Moms for Trump” and a sparkly “Trump bling pin” for $15.

Raeann Hofkin, 55, a 12-year veteran of her school board in Montgomery County, Pa., had kind words for DeSantis — “I actually like everything he had to say” — but said she was more interested in Trump’s speech later in the day.

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“I’m a Trumper,” she said, with a shrug.

Tracy Knudsen, vice chair of the Moms for Liberty chapter in Gillespie County, Texas, said she had never been involved in politics before the COVID pandemic began in 2020. She said she had seen “evil being exposed” that year and learned that her public schools carried books such as “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel that she finds objectionable.

“Most Americans are sleeping, just taking for granted that we live in a free United States,” Knudsen said.

Knudsen, like Hofkin, offered restrained praise for DeSantis, but said she was planning to support Trump in the primary next year.

“He puts his money where his mouth is,” she said.

By the end of the day, the crowd, dotted with red MAGA caps, was on its feet as Trump promised that, if elected, he would use his authority to “keep men out of women’s sports.”

“I will fight for the direct election of school principals by parents,” Trump said. “This will be the ultimate form of local control.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.