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Moms for Liberty: Despite nonpartisan claims, army of activists a political force in 2022

Moms for Liberty pitches itself as a grassroots movement of outraged parents, many of whom weren’t active in school politics until COVID-19 restrictions forced them to pay attention

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Moms for Liberty pitches itself as a grassroots movement of outraged parents, many of whom weren’t active in school politics until COVID-19 restrictions forced them to pay attention

Published Updated

Most moms groups don't have a federal super PAC that can accept unlimited campaign contributions.

They also aren’t the creation of experienced political players steeped in years of school culture-war battles.

Moms for Liberty, though, is no ordinary moms group.

It’s the political group of the moment, one that’s trying to make a big mark on the 2022 elections and position itself as a juggernaut on education issues with the clout to reshape school policies from coast to coast.

Founded in Florida earlier this year by three registered Republicans who are current or former school board members, Moms for Liberty now claims 70,000 members across 165 chapters in 33 states.

That rapid growth is generating speculation that the organization – a 501(c)(4) nonprofit which doesn’t have to disclose donors – rose to prominence by tapping into big money, something the group denies, even as it paid former Fox News host Megyn Kelly to appear at an event.

Whether or not big dollars helped jumpstart the group, Moms for Liberty has big ambitions and is poised to ratchet up the partisan warfare that has been building for years around nominally nonpartisan school board races, injecting a new level of conservative activism into such contests that could spill over into races up and down the ballot.

The group exploded onto the political scene in Florida, and later around the country, by confronting school officials about issues such as COVID-19 restrictions and how race is taught. It now aims to replace many of these officials.

“We realized there was a real need and opportunity … to help families understand how best to advocate for their children … while at the same time help find elected officials who truly understand the need to serve families,” said Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County School Board member.

Like the Tea Party backlash to President Barack Obama and the rise of Indivisible “resistance” groups under President Donald Trump, Moms for Liberty may be the group that best embodies the current political environment in America at a time when education politics is preeminent.

GOP leaders believe they have the upper hand on education issues, and are vowing to make 2022 a defining election for conservative school policy.

Moms for Liberty is at the vanguard of that effort, pitching itself as a potent new grassroots movement of outraged parents, many of whom weren’t active in school politics until COVID-19 restrictions forced them to pay attention.

Yet there also are signs that Moms for Liberty simply is a repackaging of conservative education activism, one that is attracting individuals who already were highly active in GOP politics.

“It’s a way of capturing the zeitgeist,” said Deana Rohlinger, a Florida State University sociology professor who studies social movements. “Issues that have been important to conservatives for decades, it’s giving it a new flair.” 

Bridget Ziegler, Moms for Liberty co-founder
We realized there was a real need and opportunity … to help families understand how best to advocate for their children … while at the same time help find elected officials who truly understand the need to serve families.

Moms for Liberty leaders say they have a broad mission to educate parents about school issues, with chapters meeting regularly to discuss school board agenda items. Their goal is to be in constant communication with local school officials, an ever-vigilant watchdog over every school system in the country.

Electing like-minded leaders also is a big emphasis, and the 2022 election cycle will be a big test of the group’s influence.

"Our focus is educating and uniting moms, but school board elections have an impact, and we'd be remiss to not be paying attention to that," said group co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former Indian River County School Board member.

Years in the making  

Years in the making  

Moms for Liberty was incorporated on Jan. 1 by Justice, Ziegler and former Brevard County School Board member Tina Descovich.

The co-founders come from similar political environments as Republicans in counties Trump won easily, but where school board majorities pushed policies opposed by many on the right.

Ziegler, whose husband is vice chair of the Florida GOP, said Moms for Liberty grew out of years of frustration around school policies perceived as too liberal.

Descovich and Ziegler have long fought such policies. They are former presidents of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, established in 2014 as a conservative education advocacy group.

“The core of it ... there were things we had seen as board members that are appalling but we were in the minority,” said Ziegler, who believes schools have been used to push a “leftist, liberal social agenda.”

Ziegler waded into transgender student policies. Descovich advocated for arming school employees after the Parkland school shooting. 

Moms For Liberty member Lynn Shepard (center), a father of a kindergartner in the School District of Indian River County, has a conversation with a group of parents who have opposing beliefs in the lobby of a school board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.
Moms For Liberty member Lynn Shepard (center), a father of a kindergartner in the School District of Indian River County, has a conversation with a group of parents who have opposing beliefs in the lobby of a school board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. LEAH VOSS/TCPALM

These were emotional debates, but issues such as COVID-19 and critical race theory supercharged the emotions around education policy and created a “mother lode of conservative activism,” said Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Ziegler and Descovich both opposed mandatory masking. Descovich was so opposed, she removed her son from public school after the policy passed.

“I voted against it and lost and pulled him out of school the next day,” she said.

Justice didn’t run for reelection in 2020 and Descovich lost her race. Moms for Liberty formed soon after.

Descovich lost to Jennifer Jenkins, who has since gained national attention for the harassment she endured as a proponent of mandatory school masking during the height of Florida’s most recent COVID-19 surge.

Brevard Democratic Party Chair Pamela Castellana ran Jenkins’ campaign. She believes Moms for Liberty was fueled by Descovich’s election loss. 

“I think people were just unhappy with the election results and this seemed to be a place for their emotions,” Castellana said. “Having said that, I think they’re being played. I know Tina Descovich has huge political ambitions, and we kind of thwarted them for her.”

Descovich said she simply wanted to keep advocating for parents and wasn't trying to avenge her election loss.

“My race and Miss Jenkins never once came up in any of our conversations when creating this organization,” she said.

Descovich has a background in marketing, which may help explain everything from her group’s catchy name — which she coined and the group is trying to trademark — and nonpartisan branding around parental rights to its aggressive media strategy, all of which could be contributing to its rapid growth.

Pamela Castellana, Brevard Democratic Party Chair
I think people were just unhappy with the election results and this seemed to be a place for their emotions.

The founders say the group’s growth has been organic, the result of grassroots enthusiasm. The stories told by chapter leaders around the country about why they decided to join back up that claim. Some political observers, however, wonder if the growth also is being fueled by big money.

National scope

National scope

Florida has the most Moms for Liberty chapters with 24, followed by Pennsylvania with 19 and Michigan and North Carolina each with nine, but the group’s reach extends across much of the country, driven by the universal issues many parents dealt with during the pandemic.

Parents suddenly were at home with their children and saw how teachers taught, how they paced lessons, how materials were presented and what students were reading, said Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee state director for the Education Trust and a school board member for Metro-Nashville Public Schools.

They became "much more connected to the learning process," she said. Some "became empowered to perhaps intervene and say, ‘This isn’t something I want my kid to learn.’”

Shelly Baker launched a Moms for Liberty chapter in Deschutes County, Oregon, in March after hearing Descovich on Glenn Beck’s radio show encouraging parents to get involved in school issues.

Baker believes her school board hasn’t been listening to parents.

“It was a commitment to preserving our freedoms and our liberties," she said. “I wanted to make sure my children and others learned how blessed we are to be Americans." The chapter has 120 official members and nearly 1,000 on social media, she said. 

Rebuilding trust and confidence between parents and school leaders is a key pillar of Moms for Liberty, Justice said. 

“If we know parents are a huge driver of student success, we should be rolling out the red carpet for them," she said.

Empowering parents is a potent slogan. It’s also vague, and its policy implications aren’t completely clear. 

Knowing more about who is funding Moms for Liberty could shed some light on what policies it eventually may pursue, particularly whether it’s aligned with groups pushing school vouchers, more charter schools and other education changes conservatives have long supported. 

Yet there is little information about the money fueling the army of activist moms.

That’s because Moms for Liberty is among the growing number of so-called “dark money” groups that doesn’t have to disclose the names of its donors, or even the dollar amounts donors give. 

Dark money

Dark money

Descovich denies big donors fueled Moms for Liberty’s early growth.

While she is not opposed to accepting large donations, Descovich said, the group's fundraising took time to ramp up and the organization has relied heavily on T-shirt sales — which, she said, still make up nearly half of its total revenue — and small donors. 

Moms for Liberty had a budget of $150,000 as of early November, she said. That grew to $300,000 by early December. The group recently moved into a real office after operating out of a bedroom in Descovich's house and the dining room of her sister’s house.

In September, the group began paying someone to manage merchandise. In October, it hired a part-time administrative assistant and also began paying stipends to Descovich, its executive director; Marie Rogerson, its director of development; and to the chapter chair coordinator. 

The merchandise manager receives 3% of sales. The other four individuals received $4,000 in combined compensation in October and $6,000 in November, Descovich said.

While noting that "our donors have been increasing tremendously,” Descovich said the group still has no mega donors contributing huge checks. 

Still, verifying that claim is impossible.

Moms for Liberty isn’t required to file its first financial documents with the IRS until next year and can extend the filing deadline until after the 2022 election. Even then, the public won’t see who is funding the group.

As a 501(c)(4) “social-welfare” nonprofit, Moms for Liberty can legally engage in some political activity without detailing who is financing its efforts.

So while Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, who serves on the Florida House Education Committee and chairs the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, had to disclose that he gave $2,000 to Moms for Liberty from his campaign account, many of the organization’s donors are likely to stay secret.

Descovich declined to release a list of donors.

“To take your donor list and make it public, I don’t think that’s a fair thing to do if they weren’t expecting it," she said.

The public eventually will get some financial information about the group, such as how much compensation its directors and officers receive. Such organizations also must disclose how much they pay their five largest independent contractors, and the total amount raised and spent each year. 

“It will identify basically who's getting the money, or large chunks of the money,” University of Notre Dame Law School Professor Lloyd Mayer, an expert on nonprofit tax law, said of the group’s tax filing. “It will not identify who's giving the money. As a 501(c)(4) they’re not required to even tell the IRS who their major donors are.”

What is Moms for Liberty? Co-founder talks members, COVID, parental rights and its mission

While Moms for Liberty won’t have to disclose its donors, three federal political action committees bearing the group’s name — Moms for Liberty Action, Moms for Liberty Inc. Political Victory Fund and Moms for Liberty PAC — are required to disclose contributions. Moms for Liberty Action is a so-called “Super PAC” that can accept campaign contributions of any size. 

A state-level political committee, the Joyful Warriors Political Committee, established by Moms for Liberty to influence Florida races, also must disclose donors.

The four political committees were established in October. The federal committees have yet to file financial reports, while the state committee hasn't reported any donors yet.

The treasurer of the federal PACs is Chris Marston, who was an assistant secretary of education for President George W. Bush and chairman of the local Republican Party in Alexandria, Virginia. The treasurer of the state PAC is Eric Robinson, a former Sarasota County School Board member and the former chair of the Sarasota GOP.

Descovich said there are no plans for the federal PACs yet, but the state-level committee will be used to influence Florida school board races in the upcoming election cycle.

“There isn’t a dollar in any of the PACs at this point, but the structure is there and there’s a place for someone who wants to champion our mission and our cause in those avenues. There’s a place now to put those funds,” she said.

Moms for Liberty chapters also are raising significant money, and some have local PACs that they’re coordinating with.

The Williamson County, Tennessee, chapter has raised about $24,000 since April, according to leader Robin Steenman, with much of that raised for its "Critical Race Theory 101" event. 

Steenman also is chair of Williamson Families PAC, a conservative group working to elect “leaders that promote academic excellence and practice transparent accountability and fiscal responsibility.” Three members of the PAC’s executive board also are active Moms for Liberty members, she told USA Today Network-Florida.

While Moms for Liberty's finances are steadily growing to meet its ambitions, the group's leaders say its early success was propelled by grassroots enthusiasm, not big money. Some political science experts aren’t convinced. 

Cunningham, the University of Massachusetts at Boston professor and author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” pointed to an event this summer in Cape Canaveral Florida that featured Kelly, the former Fox News host, as keynote speaker. Tickets were $50, and Moms for Liberty sought sponsorships of up $20,000 to finance the event.

There’s a benefit to being seen as a group of local, concerned moms, Cunningham said, but securing speakers such as Kelly is “not just a bake sale.”

Descovich said the group wasn't successful in getting any sponsors to pay $20,000, or even $10,000. The largest amount donated for the event was $5,000, she said. Most of the sponsors were publicly identified in a Facebook post thanking them.

Among the four sponsors who each gave $5,000 were an indoor shooting range and an individual identified as John Galt, a character in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," which is beloved by many conservatives.

Fine's campaign, former Republican state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his wife and a political committee controlled by Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield all contributed $2,000 for the event. Former Republican state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and the group Parental Rights Florida also bought sponsorships.

As funding questions swirl around the group, it is getting organized to make a splash in the 2022 election cycle. 

Getting organized

Getting organized

Moms for Liberty members could be prime recruits for school board races, but even if candidates don’t emerge directly from its membership ranks, the group is seeking to ensure they adhere to its values.

In Sarasota County, the Moms for Liberty chapter is led by Alexis Spiegelman, a member of the Sarasota County Republican Executive Committee who volunteered for both Trump campaigns.

Spiegelman is a stay-at-home mother who found herself drawn to school politics over the last year.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of government overreach happening in our schools,” she said.

Spiegelman recently attended a training session in Vero Beach. Part of the training focused on giving those interested in school board races a crash course in what it takes to run for office, work on campaigns and vet candidates.

Shawn Frost — a GOP campaign consultant and former Indian River County School Board member who has been informally advising Moms for Liberty — helped coordinate the training.

Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican, and  members of Moms for Liberty claim at a news conference June 25 in Palm Bay that critical race theory is  taught to administrators and teachers to implement in schools.
Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican, and members of Moms for Liberty claim at a news conference June 25 in Palm Bay that critical race theory is taught to administrators and teachers to implement in schools. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY

Frost is the Republican state committeeman for Indian River County and is leading the Republican Party of Florida’s Build the Bench Committee, which aims to get more Republicans elected to nonpartisan seats, such as school boards. 

In that role, Frost has been talking with Moms for Liberty leaders about how they can have an impact in the 2022 election cycle, and how he can help. An area of emphasis will be “getting them trained in campaign management,” Frost said. He has more training sessions scheduled around the state.

Frost said he has worked most closely with Rogerson, a GOP campaign consultant who became the third-leading figure in Moms for Liberty after Ziegler left to focus on her elected position, insurance job and other responsibilities.

Rogerson is highly active in GOP politics. She has worked on campaigns in Brevard County, including Fine’s 2018 campaign, and was vice president of the Space Coast Young Republicans.

Despite its strong GOP connections, Moms for Liberty leaders describe the group as nonpartisan as they try to position it to have broad appeal. 

“We are an issue-based organization not affiliated with a political party. We’re nonpartisan,” Descovich said, while conceding the group is grounded in "conservative values."

Yet with Moms for Liberty interwoven with the GOP’s leadership and political apparatus, it could be poised to act as a de facto arm of the Republican Party in the upcoming election cycle. How much it could boost campaigns remains to be seen.

Tina Descovich, Moms for Liberty co-founder
We are an issue-based organization not affiliated with a political party. We’re nonpartisan.

“What we are going to do is make sure everybody is educated on who the candidates are, who we get behind and why, and have the community play a larger role in that,” Spiegelman said.

Spiegelman’s chapter meets monthly. Recent meetings have drawn a few dozen people, she said, but 1,500 belong to the chapter's Facebook group and more than 500 have indicated interest in becoming members.

What’s unclear is whether a chapter with a few dozen active members and a modest reach on Facebook can swing a school board race. Descovich points to results from places such as Texas and Pennsylvania that held off-year school board elections last month, citing a string of wins by “parental-rights candidates.”

“It’s already happening,” she said.

Education politics preeminent

Education politics preeminent

Since the start of the pandemic, school board meetings have become one of the most volatile battlegrounds in American politics, attracting crowds upset about policies such as mask mandates.

Conservatives also have taken exception with how racial issues are taught in many schools, decrying critical race theory, which, in fact, isn’t taught in most districts but has influenced curriculum in some.

Virginia Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin rode to victory last month in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points by emphasizing his opposition to critical race theory and COVID-19 restrictions in schools.

Youngkin’s victory cemented the view among many conservatives that they have the upper hand on education issues and should make them a focal point.

“Education is a tremendous crossover issue, people care about it and it seems like we’re on the winning side of that,” Frost said.

Moms for Liberty members could help carry out some of these political operations.

“We know they’re our people,” said Tampa-based GOP consultant Anthony Pedicini. “I think if you’re a candidate and you want to get volunteers, it’s a pretty easy place to tap into.”

Democrats are preparing to counter the GOP push on education issues by framing opposition to COVID-19 school restrictions as self-centered and a dictatorial effort to usurp local control.

“They’ve been appropriating the term 'liberty' as if they have a monopoly on it, and the truth is children and their families also have the right to be alive and not be infected by somebody else,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Jose Parra.

Parra argued that groups such as Moms for Liberty are speaking more to the base of the GOP than to swing voters, and won’t help candidates expand their reach.

Ziegler believes Moms for Liberty is poised to have a big impact in 2022. 

“They’ll absolutely be influential,” she said. “I don’t know how any candidate anywhere in this country at this point can’t look at this organization and their numbers and growth and not take them seriously.”

Whatever happens in the next election cycle, Descovich said, Moms for Liberty isn’t going away.

“Our goal is to be in this for the long term, the long game,” she said. “I know this is a political hot issue right now, but I’ve been passionate about this way before it was a political hot issue.”

How we did this story
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As the coronavirus pandemic worsened in 2020, schools were a main focal point of concern. In Florida, schools were first ordered closed in March 2020 for two weeks, then into April, then to May 1 and then for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

At-home learning allowed parents unprecedented access to their children's lessons, and some began questioning what they were seeing — how teachers taught, how they paced lessons, how materials were presented and what students were reading.

And as some parents began finding their voices, challenging school board members at meetings, reporters for the USA Today Network-Florida took notice. They reported on parents pushing back against curriculum and textbook choices, and — ultimately just as important — fighting COVID-19 regulations such as mask mandates and social-distancing requirements.

The network's reporters discovered many of these parents had more in common than just their soap boxes. They wore the navy blue T-shirts of Moms for Liberty, a group born in Brevard, Indian River and Sarasota counties that was spreading across Florida and across the nation. 

Their efforts, while wrapped in the cloak of nonpartisan advocacy for children, became increasingly allied with the agendas of Gov. Ron DeSantis, GOP state legislators and conservative causes.

Led by reporters Sommer Brugal and Zac Anderson, the USA Today Network-Florida launched an in-depth examination of where Moms for Liberty came from, how it came to prominence and the role it may take in the 2022 elections.

They spoke to USA Today Network education reporters from Oregon to Florida who had seen Moms for Liberty members pressing their points to school boards across the country. They talked with Moms for Liberty chapter leaders, political scientists, political operatives and experts in nonprofit regulation to compile a broad and deep profile of how the group operates and what its future may have in store.    



Staff writers Meghan Mangrum of The Tennessean and Ryan McKinnon of the Herald-Tribune contributed to this report. 

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at

Sommer Brugal is TCPalm's former education reporter for Indian River, St Lucie and Martin counties. 

Published Updated