Maurice T. Cunningham suggests we try a four-part test of the group.
It's worth pondering who and what is really behind some school activist groups that claim to be grassroots. [LLOYD FOX | Baltimore Sun ]
Moms for Liberty held its national summit in Tampa, and that’s quite an achievement for a grassroots group started just last year by two liberty-loving moms. But since even the “two moms” claim falls apart, it’s worth asking what Moms for Liberty really is.
I pay attention when a new “parents” or “moms” group bursts upon the education/politics scene. I exposed the millions in dark money behind Families for Excellent Schools during a 2016 charter schools ballot question campaign in Massachusetts. New groups like Moms for Liberty are just as transparently Astroturf — a group that claims to be grassroots but is actually artificial turf.
One of the best tools for analyzing phony education groups is a four-part test by Professor Daniel Katz. Let’s see how Moms for Liberty does.
Growth at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage. Moms for Liberty incorporated as an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) organization, a form that lends itself to dark money political shenanigans. It exploded on the scene with its leaders being guests on Fox News and breaking into the Washington Post. It has a well-developed website and extensive social media reach. Moms for Liberty has formed three federal and one state political action committees, one of which is a SuperPAC able to accept unlimited donations. Its careers page is seeking state coordinators to work with the chapter chair coordinator, and a communications officer. Here’s something I’ve noticed following Moms for Liberty and similar organizations: the “comms moms” — many of these groups’ leaders have backgrounds in marketing and communications. “At the top, (Moms for Liberty) … are political strategists, risk managers and communications professionals — high-powered women with connections to top state and national Republicans,” reports the Florida Phoenix. Moms for Liberty’s press is being handled by Calvary Strategies whose CEO is a former campaign manager and chief of staff to Sen. (then-Gov.) Rick Scott.
Since its inception Moms for Liberty has managed a fund raiser with former Fox News celebrity Megyn Kelly (top ticket $20,000), co-hosted The American Dream Conference featuring a keynote from former Trump Cabinet secretary Ben Carson, and the national summit (presenting sponsorships for $50,000 are sold out, featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis, Carson, Sen. Rick Scott and former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Who is funding the group and for how much? Moms for Liberty’s leaders claim to get by on t-shirt sales. They’ve barely even heard of the Koch brothers! Yet perhaps they’ve heard of the Council for National Policy. Two of Moms for Liberty’s National Summit sponsors, the Leadership Institute and Heritage Foundation are critical members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of right wing billionaires and Christian fundamentalist leaders that underwrites and coordinates right wing politics.
Who is really running the operation? The two “founders” are former school committee member Tina Descovich, a communications and marketing professional and Tiffany Justice, also a former school committee member. But there was a third founder, Bridget Ziegler. She is still a school committee member and her husband, Christian Ziegler, is vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and the owner of a political marketing firm. He boasts that Moms for Liberty will provide crucial ground support for DeSantis’ re-election.
Then there’s the odd coincidence of so many grassroots parents organizations arising at the same time with similar missions. Parents Defending Education is Koch-connected. The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council claims credit for the havoc wreaked by anti-Critical Race Theory legislation. The Council for National Policy’s Leadership Institute commenced its own program to take over school boards. The Council for National Policy-connected Turning Point USA initiated a School Board Watch List for reporting “woke” school boards.
Do its supposed grassroots members have even a clue what the organization is about? Upstart operations like Moms for Liberty, according to a column in Forbes, “are operated by professional communications folks and seasoned political operatives, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t activated and harnessed actual anger and upset among people on the ground.” It also doesn’t mean those people understand that what they think is grassroots is actually manipulation from secretive puppeteers above.
Moms for Liberty could put such questions to rest by revealing its true financiers. But that would lead to a lot of uncomfortable inquiries, questions perhaps even the comms moms can’t handle.
Maurice T. Cunningham retired in 2021 as associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is the author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.”
Published by the Tampa Bay Times July 9, 2022