TAMPA — If American politics had an address, it would have been in downtown Tampa this weekend.
Two dueling conferences, hosted by the Florida Democratic Party and the conservative Moms for Liberty group, converged at two adjoining Marriott hotels, where all the messiness, urgency, anger and hope inherent to Florida politics today reflected back and forth. 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 vowed to fight book bans and bigotry. It also highlighted each party’s efforts to energize the grassroots of their bases, including whether they’ve been successful in creating a bench of up-and-coming candidates who often start at the school board level.
“Even two years ago, I couldn’t name one school board member,” said Angela Dubach, the Pinellas County Moms for Liberty chapter chairperson. “I probably didn’t even vote for school board in the August (2020) primary and it’s just not the case anymore.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis spent much of his speech to the group on Friday giving a play-by-play 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 the Moms for Liberty organizers should proceed, hinting at a political momentum that will extend far beyond school boards.
“If you just show people that you’re willing to fight for them, man, they will walk over broken glass barefoot for you,” DeSantis said. “With everything that we’ve stood up against, and all the incoming we’ve taken, every step of the way we’ve had a reservoir of patriots throughout this state who are standing up.”
Democrats were happy to make comparisons between the two events, highlighting the dangers they said the Republican focus on school lessons poses. Some said they are optimistic Republicans’ messaging on this issue could backfire with moderates.
“The people across the street, they have a game plan,” said Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner. “We have to stand up and fight back like we have never fought back before.”
The Florida Democrats’ Leadership Blue event was larger, with 700 tickets sold for their formal gala alone, not including attendees who skipped the fundraiser but showed up to earlier caucus meetings. Moms for Liberty had about 500 attendees from around the country.
But what Moms for Liberty — created by current and former Florida school board members fighting school mask requirements — lacked in official party structure, it made up for in star power. DeSantis, first lady Casey DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, U.S. Sen. 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 the “sexualization” of their kids.
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The Florida Democrats, meanwhile, held caucus meetings to coordinate messaging, discuss a range of issues and hear from all the top Democratic candidates in the midterms, including gubernatorial primary rivals Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, attorney general hopefuls Aramis Ayala and Daniel Uhlfelder, chief financial officer candidate Adam Hattersley, and Rep. Val Demings, who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat. The gala’s keynote speaker was Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker.
Education as a microcosm
Moms for Liberty is technically a nonpartisan group focused solely on education issues, though their summit received sponsorships from conservative heavyweights like the Heritage Foundation.
Some of the attendees and speakers, including podcaster James Lindsay, said the energy surrounding schools is about more than education, but about America’s cultural future. Lindsay claimed Marxist leftists are trying to infiltrate curriculum to radicalize children, estrange them from their families and change the course of broader society. He called public schools “Maoist thought reform prisons.”
“This is how education has been stolen,” said Lindsay, speaking on the main stage directly after Casey DeSantis. “The purpose is to fuel a gigantic public-private partnership between corporate and state power so they have absolute control.”
He and others also openly questioned the fact that transgender people exist.
Stephen Gaskill, president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, warned his group’s meeting that the anti-trans and similar rhetoric surrounding Florida public education is an existential threat to vulnerable youth.
“(Republicans) are coming into blue areas ... they’re making inroads in Broward County, they’re here in blue Tampa,” he said. “We need to fight. This is a four-alarm fire. There’s no other sugarcoating. We are losing this battle.”
Former Miami-area state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is the senior political adviser for the progressive grassroots organization Florida Rising, said he believed Florida Democrats need to be more aggressive in explaining the value of public education and paint Republicans’ concerns with curriculum as a desire to maintain control.
“I think it’s part of a larger theme: controlling women’s bodies, controlling content in our education,” said Bullard, a former public school teacher. “No one’s buying their belief in freedom because they’re restricting ... freedoms.”
Crist argued that Republicans, mainly DeSantis, have honed in on school curricula to fulfill political ambitions.
“Not teaching our students what our actual history is, is mind-blowingly ignorant,” Crist said. “(DeSantis) is singing to a choir. But it ain’t the truth.”
Recruiting for the future
Multiple Democrats admitted that their party has, in the past, neglected to recognize the importance of recruiting people for local, down-ballot races — a contrast to groups like Moms for Liberty.
“The only way to get your party entrenched is literally at the local level; you have to start with school board, and then from there you go to mosquito control board then on to 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, an Orange County school board member who’s running for state House, is an example of someone working to inch up that hierarchy of public office. She said she was spurred to pursue an office in state government after the DeSantis administration preempted school boards from being able to require masks.
Multiple Democrats expressed optimism that Republicans’ movement to the right will give them the upper hand, including on issues like affordable housing or abortion.
“Seeing the radicalization of the Republican Party is not only exciting the Democratic base,” Fried said. “It certainly is waking up independents and true conservative Republicans saying, ‘What has happened to my party?’”