Moms for Liberty faces growing challenges amid Florida sex scandal

Moms for Liberty faces growing challenges amid Florida sex scandal

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Moms for Liberty is facing mounting concerns amid a sex scandal tied to one of the conservative education group’s founders.

Co-founder Bridget Ziegler’s husband, Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler, has been accused of rape by another woman; he has not been charged.

The woman alleges she had a sexual relationship with both Bridget and Christian Ziegler and has said Christian showed up once without Bridget and assaulted her.

The allegations have prompted opponents to accuse the couple, and Moms for Liberty, of hypocrisy.

“The Zieglers have made a habit out of attacking anything they perceive as going against ‘family values,’ be it reproductive rights or the existence of LGBTQ+ Floridians,” state Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said in a statement. “The level of hypocrisy in this situation is stunning.”  

As the police investigate, Christian Ziegler has faced calls from top Florida Republicans to resign and has been censured by his party. The Sarasota County School Board in Florida voted 4-1 to call on Bridget Ziegler to resign from her seat.

Moms for Liberty has emphasized Bridget Ziegler removed herself from her role at the organization only a month after the group officially launched. 

“We have been truly shaken to read of the serious, criminal allegations against Christian Ziegler. We believe any allegation of sexual assault should be taken seriously and fully investigated,” co-founders Tina Descovich and Justice said in a statement.

“Bridget Ziegler resigned from her role as co-founder with Moms for Liberty within a month of our launch in January of 2021, nearly three years ago. She has remained an avid warrior for parental rights across the country,” they added.

It has been a damaging story for a group that has cast itself as standing up for regular parents against school boards and officials it argues have taken a too liberal or “woke” attitude to issues on sexual orientation and race, and how children should be taught about such issues.

“I think they had a period of growth. And we’ve seen over the last nine months to a year, a period of decline, and I think there’s lots of indicators of that,” said Heath Brown, an associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. “And they all point in the same direction of a movement that had once been prominent and has now lost some of that prominence.”

The group burst onto the scene in 2021, gaining nationwide attention as it propelled the parents’ rights movement and fought against COVID-19 measures in schools. The organization quickly became involved in school boards, attending meetings and getting conservatives elected.  

The rise of Moms for Liberty dovetailed the increased involvement more broadly of conservatives in education issues, with House Republicans passing a “Parental Bill of Rights” in March.

But the end of 2023 proved difficult.

In November school board elections, Moms for Liberty said 43 percent of its backed candidates won seats.

By comparison, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) proclaimed 80 percent of the candidates it tracked in 250 races won.

Co-founder Tiffany Justice said the group is “proud of the work” Moms for Liberty “has done and will continue to do.” She noted Moms for Liberty hosted more than 700 people at a national conference in 2023.

“We will not end here and are gearing up to ensure that all candidates in 2024 understand the importance of parental rights,” she said.

Brown suggested candidates’ quality and the issues candidates embraced contributed to the election efforts. “I think, ultimately, other factors have determined the outcomes of these elections,” he said.

The group’s opponents said this year’s results signaled the message Moms for Liberty has promoted can’t be a long-term strategy.

“I think what we’ve learned here is that voters really want school boards to be boring,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something, a group that aims to get young progressives elected into office.

Litman said people want school board meetings to be focused on issues like teacher pay and curriculum and not on topics such as book bans and restricting LGBTQ students.

Brown suggested the group’s “pretty narrow focus” grabbed the spotlight early on but wasn’t a benefit when it came to voting this fall, saying school board elections are generally more broad.

“And the candidates that win are typically able to speak to a wide range of issues. And Moms for Liberty has been much more single-minded in their approach, and I think that ultimately hasn’t worked when the elections have been held,” he said.

Moms for Liberty fired two chapter chairs this year when controversy arose because the two leaders took pictures with those who were part of the far-right Proud Boys organizations.

While these situations have caused distractions from the group’s work, Brown said the broader mission may be the group’s longer-term problem.

“I think Moms for Liberty is a good example of a movement bubble, which took advantage of an issue, timing and the ease of online and digital organizing to grow quite rapidly,” Brown said. “But just as easily as it is to grow, movement bubbles pop and those organizations can fade away quite quickly. And I think that’s somewhat a contemporary phenomenon that we see. We’ll see more and more of it. And I think that’s something that impacted Moms for Liberty’s trajectory.” 

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