WASHINGTON — Stand With Parkland needed to deliver a message to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and they turned to Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to do it.
For the last three years, the group that represents 15 of the 17 victims’ families of the nation’s deadliest high school shooting has focused almost exclusively on school safety. It’s an issue that doesn’t garner wall-to-wall cable news coverage or dominate political campaigns, but Stand With Parkland’s approach enabled the group to introduce legislation and build trust among lawmakers from both parties — particularly members of Congress from Florida.
But the nation’s biggest political story was now colliding with their school safety work.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected member of Congress from Georgia who once agreed that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a “false flag” attack, was assigned by McCarthy to the House Education Committee. Greene’s social media posts and videos of her harassing Parkland survivor and gun control advocate David Hogg had generated national attention and calls for her resignation from Democrats.
And Greene’s position on the Education Committee would make the one-time Parkland denier responsible for considering legislation crafted by Stand With Parkland like the Luke and Alex School Safety Act. Last week, Diaz-Balart reintroduced the bill named after Parkland victims Luke Hoyer and Alex Schachter that would codify into law a federal clearinghouse for school safety measures.
Two families spoke with Greene, and the group decided that her committee assignment hurt their goals of school safety, securing campuses and responsible firearms ownership. They sent their letter to McCarthy. Greene needed to go.
“She was reluctant to recognize the affects of school shootings not just on the families but on the entire community,” said Stand With Parkland President Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of the victims. “It led us to believe she couldn’t be effective in stopping the problem.”
Lobbying with a purpose
In the last three years, the 17 Parkland families became some of the most effective lobbyists in Washington, building relationships with lawmakers, understanding the sausage-making of legislation and crafting public relations strategies. Two parents who aren’t part of Stand With Parkland, Fred Guttenberg and Andrew Pollack, are vocal advocates for different causes. Guttenberg is a well-known gun control advocate while Pollack has pushed for arming and training school personnel to deal with threats and was the only Parkland parent to support Greene.
“The fact that it even came to this place is fascinating,” said Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was one of the victims. Guttenberg shared multiple videos of Greene harassing Hogg on social media and led calls for her removal alongside Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland in Congress.
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On Feb. 3, Stand With Parkland sent McCarthy its letter asking for Greene’s removal from the Education Committee, a similar move McCarthy made with Iowa Rep. Steve King in 2019 when the former congressman expressed sympathy for white nationalism. On the same day, McCarthy reached out to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and said he was open to reassigning Greene to a different committee.
Hoyer, aware that a resolution to strip Greene of her committee assignments led by Broward Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz had unanimous support from Democrats, wouldn’t agree to any deal that kept Greene on committees, the bodies that craft and consider legislation.
On Feb. 4 — just 10 days shy of the terrible Valentine’s Day anniversary of the 2018 shooting — a vote was scheduled on Wasserman Schultz’s resolution to kick Greene off the Education and House Budget Committees. Republicans were expected to mostly back Greene ahead of the vote, arguing that it set a dangerous precedent to punish a lawmaker for conduct prior to assuming elected office. One Democrat predicted that only one or two Republicans were expected to break ranks as lawmakers entered the chamber.
In the end 11 House Republicans, including Diaz-Balart, Rep. Carlos Gimenez and Rep. Maria Elvria Salazar ended up breaking with their party to kick Greene off her committees. The three Miami Republicans joined a group of eight lawmakers who cast their “yes” vote at the last possible second.
Gimenez characterized his position as a vote of conscience, and argued that Greene’s rhetoric will sink the Republican Party in future elections if it isn’t thoroughly rejected.
“Actually, the problem is the rhetoric, the QAnon, the conspiracy theories,” Gimenez said on CNN a day after the vote. " If you get attached to that...it’s going to cost us the majority in . I reject all of that. I think most of my colleagues on the Republican side reject it.”
McCarthy never responded to the letter delivered by Diaz-Balart’s office, Montalto said, but he hoped their position made a difference with local lawmakers.
“We’d like to think that all the Florida contingent worked together and discussed the issue,” he said.
Conservative point of view
Ryan Petty, a Parkland parent whose daughter Alaina was one of the victims, is a Stand With Parkland board member but also a conservative who generally supports Republicans. He was one of the two Parkland parents to speak with Greene and said her past dissemination of conspiracy theories was what led the group of parents to recommend that she not be seated on the Education Committee.
“I’ll speak as the father of a victim here and someone who is more involved on the Republican side of the political spectrum,” Petty said. “We have a responsibility to be ambassadors for the things we believe in and disseminating conspiracy theories and participating in those don’t help, they’re not persuasive, they don’t move people toward the positions we care about. My advice to her was to stay as far from those as possible. We’ll see if she does that.”
After speaking to Greene, Petty said he spoke to a number of conservatives and Second Amendment advocates and found that Greene didn’t have much support. The conversations gave him hope that some Republicans would vote to kick Greene off her committees, and ultimately made the votes of Diaz-Balart, Gimenez and Salazar votes less surprising to him.
“I was surprised how little support there was for her,” Petty said. “I wasn’t surprised to see several Republicans vote against her. I’m proud that Republicans are willing to hold our own accountable for the things they say and the things they do.”
Empathy from a Pulse victim’s mother
Other families who lost loved ones in mass shootings also noticed Diaz-Balart, Gimenez and Salazar. MJ Wright, a Miami resident whose son Jerry was one of the 49 Pulse Night Club shooting victims in 2016, said she sent a letter to all three representatives thanking them for their vote.
“It was important to me just as a parent to say thank you for doing the right thing,” Wright said.
Wright, a registered Republican who once cut a TV ad on behalf of former Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, said she stays in touch with Parkland families and the families of Sandy Hook, a 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that Greene also considered a “false flag” attack to gin up support for gun control. Wright said the Miami Republicans’ vote made her emotional.
“I actually got tears in my eyes when I saw that because maybe there’s hope of having some sane people on the conservative side,” Wright said. “They could have just gone with the majority and they didn’t, and I think we need to recognize that it was courageous and that merit needs to be given.”
Petty, Guttenberg and Montalto agreed that the three Miami lawmakers’ proximity to Parkland was a factor in their vote. Four of the other “Yes” votes from Republicans came from New York-area members, as Greene also questioned the validity of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Whether they were in office or not what happened in Parkland had a tremendous impact on a lot of our elected leaders,” Petty said.
Guttenberg said South Florida politicians had “no other choice” than to kick Greene off her committees, though he was disappointed that the Republican statements after the vote also criticized Democrats.
“I was very pleased at what those three members did,” Guttenberg said. “They are part of this community where Parkland happened, they could have made no other choice.”
And the parents also said Gimenez and Salazar’s votes give them hope that they’ll have two more members who will work with them on school safety issues. None of the parents currently have close relationships with Gimenez and Salazar like they do with Diaz-Balart, because they were recently elected.
“They are on the list to get to know,” Montalto said. “Sadly, the time after the election is also the holiday season, and it’s very difficult for our families and it’s hard to maintain the amount of political outreach that other groups can with new members. We have to deal with the pain of our loss and find strength and energy to continue to work for school safety.”