Sex Scandal in Florida Rattles Moms for Liberty Amid Declining Group Influence

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In a dramatic turn of events, Moms for Liberty, a national right-wing advocacy group initially founded in response to Covid-19 school closures, is facing a significant crisis. The organization, which gained prominence championing conservative causes during the pandemic, is grappling with a scandal involving one of its founders, Bridget Ziegler.

Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board, recently disclosed to the police that she and her husband, currently under investigation for sexual assault, had a consensual encounter with another woman. The revelation has triggered a storm of criticism, prompting calls for Ziegler’s resignation and exposing a perceived inconsistency between the group’s public stances and the personal lives of its leaders.

During a tense school board meeting, community members, including Sally Sells, a Sarasota resident and mother, voiced their discontent. Sells highlighted the apparent disconnect between Ziegler’s public positions, often labeled as anti-L.G.B.T.Q., and her private actions.

This incident has brought to light the challenges faced by Ziegler and Moms for Liberty, shedding light on the scrutiny that public figures endure when their personal lives clash with their advocated values.

The controversy surrounding Ziegler has heightened scrutiny on Moms for Liberty, a group that rapidly ascended to prominence by opposing Covid-19 school closures and mask mandates. While initially recognized for these efforts, the organization shifted its focus, endorsing policies deemed anti-L.G.B.T.Q. by critics. However, the recent scandal involving one of its founders has cast a shadow over the group’s influence.

Despite being a conservative powerhouse and a sought-after endorsement in the G.O.P. presidential primary campaign trail, Moms for Liberty is witnessing a decline in political sway. The 2023 school board races, where candidates endorsed by the group suffered losses, have prompted questions about the future of education issues as a driving force in Republican politics.

Despite education-related matters taking center stage during the pandemic, recent trends suggest a shift in priorities. Donald J. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, briefly references “parental rights” in his speeches, deviating from the group’s key advocacy point.

Education issues, including school curriculums, transgender students’ rights, and discussions about race, have taken a backseat to more traditional Republican focal points such as abortion rights, foreign policy, and the economy.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a prominent conservative voice on education, has struggled to rally conservative support for his presidential bid. John Fredericks, a Trump ally, emphasizes the need for Moms for Liberty to recalibrate its focus, suggesting a shift toward emphasizing core subjects like math, science, and reading rather than contentious issues like critical race theory and related topics.

As Moms for Liberty grapples with the fallout from the Ziegler scandal and diminishing political influence, the organization finds itself at a critical juncture. The trajectory of education issues in Republican politics hangs in the balance, prompting a reassessment of priorities and strategies in the wake of changing political dynamics.

In 2023, nearly 60 percent of school board candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty were defeated in contested races across 10 states, according to Ballotpedia. The group, claiming to operate 300 chapters in 48 states with approximately 130,000 members, now faces questions about its future impact.

Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, notes the group’s outsize presence in battleground and liberal counties, but its policies are increasingly unpopular in those areas. The focus on contentious issues like banning books, limiting L.G.B.T.Q. discussions, and policing race education is losing traction.

The group’s recent controversies, such as the removal of chairwomen in Kentucky for associating with the Proud Boys and a chapter in Indiana quoting Adolf Hitler, have reshaped its image and alienated it from the voters it once claimed to represent. Even in Northern Virginia suburbs, where the group was strong, education issues failed to resonate in the 2021 governor’s race.

Anne Pogue Donohue, who ran against a Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidate in Loudoun County, Va., observed a disconnect between the group’s focus on culture-war issues and the practical concerns of voters. Despite facing personal attacks on social media, Donohue won by a significant margin, indicating a potential shift in public sentiment.

One state where Moms for Liberty maintains influence is Florida, where it has aligned itself with Governor Ron DeSantis. The group supported DeSantis’s parental-rights-in-education law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” which prohibits classroom instruction on L.G.B.T.Q. topics. The governor’s influence in local school board races and conservative ousting of superintendents have solidified Moms for Liberty’s standing in the state.

However, the group’s tactics, such as challenging books in school board meetings, have become more extreme and drawn opposition. Critics have mobilized to counter Moms for Liberty’s message, with recent incidents in Brevard County, Florida, illustrating the escalating tensions during board meetings.

As the group navigates internal challenges and external criticism, Moms for Liberty finds itself at a crossroads. The fallout from recent controversies and electoral losses raises questions about its future impact and whether education issues will remain a driving force in Republican politics.

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