If American politics had an address, it would be downtown Tampa this weekend.
Dueling conferences organized by the Florida Democratic Party and the conservative group Moms for Liberty converged at nearby Marriott hotels, where all the mess, urgency, anger and hope inherent in Florida politics today reflected in both directions. Protesters often stood in between.
The moment hammered home how education has become a focal point of Florida’s midterms, as Moms for Liberty held sessions with titles like “Gender Ideology in Our Schools” and Democrats are committed to fighting book bans and bigotry. He also highlighted each party’s efforts to energize their grassroots base, including whether they’ve managed to create a pool of promising candidates who often start at the school board level.
“Even two years ago, I couldn’t name a single school board member,” said Angela Dubach, president of the Pinellas County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit that supports child participation. parents and Conservative priorities in schools. “I probably didn’t even vote for the school board in the August (2020) primary and just don’t anymore.”
Governor Ron DeSantis devoted much of his speech to the group on Friday giving a piece by piece of how the controversy over the Parental Rights in Education Bill, or the so-called ‘don’t say gay’ bill, took place. And he gave advice on how Moms for Liberty organizers should proceed, hinting at a political momentum that will extend far beyond school boards.
“If you just show people you’re ready to fight for them, man, they’ll walk barefoot on broken glass for you,” DeSantis said. “With everything we’ve stood against and everything we’ve done, every step of the way, we’ve had a reservoir of patriots all across this state rising up.”
At the Moms for Liberty event in Tampa, an effort to win school board elections
Democrats were happy to draw comparisons between the two events, pointing to the dangers they believe the Republican focus on schoolyards poses. Some said they were optimistic. Republican messages on this issue could backfire on moderates.
“People across the street have a game plan,” said Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture. “We have to stand up and fight back like we never have before.”
The Florida Democrats’ Leadership Blue event was larger, with 700 tickets sold for their official gala alone, not including attendees who skipped the fundraiser but showed up at previous caucus meetings. Moms for Liberty had approximately 500 attendees from across the country.
But what Moms for Liberty — created by current and former Florida school board members who fought against school mask requirements — lacked in formal party structure, it made up for in star power. DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, U.S. Senator Rick Scott and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos all spoke to the group, encouraging the ballroom full of mostly white women to keep fighting. against “critical race theory” and “sexualization”. of their children.
Florida Democrats, meanwhile, held caucus meetings to coordinate messaging, discuss a series of issues and hear from all the top Democratic midterm candidates, including top gubernatorial rivals Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, Attorney General hopefuls Aramis Ayala and Daniel Uhlfelder, CFO nominee Adam Hattersley and Rep. Val Demings, who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat. The gala’s keynote speaker was Illinois Governor JB Pritzker.
Education as a microcosm
Moms for Liberty is technically a non-partisan group focused solely on education issues, though their summit has received sponsorships from conservative heavyweights like the Heritage Foundation.
Some of the attendees and speakers, including podcaster James Lindsay, said the the energy around the schools is about more than education, but about America’s cultural future. Lindsay claimed that left-wing Marxists attempt to infiltrate the school curriculum to radicalize children, alienate them from their families and change the course of society at large. He called public schools “prison of Maoist thought reform”.
“That’s how the education was stolen,” Lindsay said, speaking on the main stage right after Casey DeSantis. “The goal is to fuel a gigantic public-private partnership between corporations and state power so that they have absolute control.”
He and others have also openly questioned the fact that transgender people exist.
Stephen Gaskill, chair of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, warned at his group’s meeting that anti-trans and similar rhetoric surrounding public education in Florida is an existential threat to vulnerable youth.
“(Republicans) are coming into the blue zones … they’re making inroads into Broward County, they’re here in the Tampa blue,” he said. “We have to fight. This is a four alarm fire. There is no other sugar coating. We are losing this battle.
Former Miami-area state senator Dwight Bullard, who is the senior political adviser to grassroots progressive organization Florida Rising, said he thinks Florida Democrats need to be more aggressive in explaining the value of public education and portraying Republicans’ concerns about the program as a desire to keep control.
“I think it’s part of a bigger theme: controlling women’s bodies, controlling the content of our education,” said Bullard, a former public school teacher. “Nobody buys their belief in freedom because they restrict…freedoms.”
Crist argued that Republicans, primarily DeSantis, have focused on school curricula to achieve their political ambitions.
“Not teaching our students what our real history is is mind-boggling ignorance,” Crist said. “(DeSantis) sings in a choir. But that’s not the truth.
Recruit for the future
Several Democrats have admitted their party has in the past failed to recognize the importance of recruiting people for local short-vote races — a contrast to groups like Moms for Liberty.
“The only way to root your party is literally at the local level; you have to start with the school board and then from there you go to the mosquito control board and then to the state representative,” said Cynthia Garrow, vice president of the Trinity Democratic Club in Pasco County. . “The Democratic Party needs to realize that’s where we need to put the money.”
Johanna Lopez, a member of the Orange County school board who shows up at State House, is an example of someone working to elevate this civil service hierarchy. She said she was swayed to take a position in state government after the DeSantis administration blocked school boards from being able to require masks.
Several Democrats have expressed optimism that Republicans’ move to the right will give them the upper hand, including on issues such as affordable housing or abortion.
“See the radicalization of the Republican Party doesn’t just excite the Democratic base,” Fried said. “It certainly wakes up independents and real conservative Republicans saying, ‘What happened to my party? “”
This story was originally published July 16, 2022 9:12 p.m.