TAMPA — Tia Bess carried a dog-eared copy of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” in her purse as she stood in line to hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak Friday morning.
Bess, a Clay County mom of three, came to the inaugural Moms for Liberty summit at the Tampa Marriott Water Street to commiserate with hundreds of others from around the nation about their concerns that sexually explicit books, lessons on race and gender identity and other things they find objectionable have infiltrated public schools.
She, like other moms and grandmothers at the event, also wanted to hear ideas about how to make change. She quickly connected with Michelle Beavers, a Brevard County mom who has fought to remove dozens of titles from that district’s school libraries.
“I want to take my knowledge back, to be able to educate more parents,” Bess said.
That’s the goal Tina Descovich had in mind when she co-founded Moms for Liberty less than two years ago in the midst of the pandemic. She and a handful of other current and former Florida school board members, all politically conservative, said they wanted to create a movement to empower parents to overcome what they considered to be a leftward push on curriculum and other aspects of public school.
On Friday, Descovich said she was thrilled with the turnout from across the nation for the group’s first major event, which featured DeSantis as its introductory keynote speaker.
“We have a great opportunity in this election in August with the primaries in the school boards ... and then in November in my election and all these other elections, to really solidify the state of Florida as this country’s citadel of freedom,” DeSantis told the crowd.
After the governor’s speech, Democrats held a news conference to criticize the moms’ group and its message.
“An organization whose very existence only originates from the founders themselves being voted out of office by a majority of voices. They serve as a tool of distraction for the DeSantis administration as he works with his legislators to dismantle our public schools,” said Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, who has been harassed at home for her stance on issues.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Jenkins said she hasn’t seen a person wearing a Moms for Liberty T-Shirt in Brevard “in months” and was “relieved” to hear the summit was not as large as they had anticipated. About 500 people were in attendance.
Moms for Liberty has grown quickly. It counts more than 200 chapters and 95,000 members in 38 states and has gained political clout in local school board races as well as larger campaigns, including DeSantis’ reelection bid. It’s also become a target for critics, who have blasted the “parental rights” movement as code for intolerance to ideas like LGBTQ student rights and a full teaching of the nation’s racist past.
Members have led outreach campaigns at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference and often broadcast their message on conservative media, which has helped the group grow.
Sponsors of the summit include a number of conservative groups, including the Leadership Institute, which seeks to grow conservative activism and place more conservatives in government, politics and the media.
Merianne Jensen, a mother of four who launched a chapter in Virginia just two months ago, said she was “praying to get involved” in a bigger way when she was fighting a mask mandate at her kids’ schools. She learned about Moms for Liberty when her father-in-law sent her a Breitbart news article that said the group was “saving America by empowering parents.”
“I am coming here to help and be rejuvenated,” Jensen said before heading into the auditorium to hear DeSantis, who she said was a “hero for children.”
After the DeSantis speech, attendees headed into hourlong strategy sessions on subjects such as “Are You Ready to Run?” and “Gender Ideology in Our Schools,” most of which reporters were not allowed to attend.
“It’s mostly mothers that have really struggled with their own children in their communities,” Descovich said. “They have all come to this place feeling their voices haven’t been heard. They are here to be trained and empowered.”
Nicole Donahue of Vero Beach is one of those parents. The stay-at-home mom of a 4-year-old, Donahue said she recently joined Moms for Liberty to become more informed about the rights she and her child have as they prepare to enter the schools. She also hoped to meet other parents who can provide insights and ideas.
“Ultimately, I think the education system is flawed,” Donahue said, “and it needs to be given back to our children.”
Kourtney O’Hara, a Moms chapter leader from Lexington, South Carolina, said she found the information presented worth the entry fee and travel costs, for which she said her husband is working an extra shift. She appreciated learning how Floridians worked three years to pass a “parental bill of rights,” which she and others are pushing for at home.
She also liked learning about how to get a positive, simple message about the cause to the public: “We’re not looking to make enemies.”
Located at the same hotel complex as the Florida Democratic Party’s Leadership Blue event this weekend, the Moms for Liberty summit also drew opposition.
Pinellas County high school history teacher Brandt Robinson, wearing a “no hate in my state” T-shirt, stood outside the hotel with a handful of others to protest the organization and DeSantis.
“It’s important that we let the public know that there are citizens who are standing up to the governor and to Moms for Liberty’s false claims that we are indoctrinating our students.”
Inside the main ballroom, attendees mingled and visited booths with swag, including books for sale called “Counter Wokecraft” and buttons saying “No matter what my teacher says I’ll always love America.”
When DeSantis took the stage, the group presented him with a “liberty sword” modeled after the type given to gladiators. The event has adopted the phrase “joyful warriors” to describe its members.
Jennifer Arguello, a mom of three running for school board in Osceola County, said she learned more about how to effectively run her campaign. She networked with other candidates and picked up many of the “basics” about which voters to reach and how to reach them.
Above all, though, she said she was happy she was able to network with other candidates.
“There are a lot of like-minded people like us out there,” Arguello said. “I don’t feel alone.”
Staff Writer Emily L. Mahoney and Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.
• • •
Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!
Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.