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DeSantis calls on Florida GOP leader to step down amid investigation

Christian Ziegler has been accused of sexual battery, and police are investigating.
 
Florida Party of Florida chairperson Christian Ziegler addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Florida Party of Florida chairperson Christian Ziegler addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Dec. 1, 2023|Updated Dec. 2, 2023

Allegations of sexual battery against Christian Ziegler, the chairperson of the Republican Party of Florida, continued to rock Florida’s GOP on Friday, prompting questions about the future leadership of the state party just months before the presidential primary.

Thursday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed in on the controversy, saying that Ziegler should resign.

“I don’t see how we can continue with that investigation ongoing given the gravity of those situations,” DeSantis told reporters when asked about Ziegler following the governor’s debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “And so I think that he should, I think he should step aside. I think he should tend to that.”

“He’s innocent until proven guilty, but we just can’t have a party chair that is under that type of scrutiny,” DeSantis continued. “I hope the charges aren’t true. I’ve known him, I’ve known (Ziegler’s wife) Bridget, they’ve been friends. But the mission is more important.”

DeSantis said he only learned Thursday of the ongoing criminal investigation into Ziegler, which is being conducted by the Sarasota Police Department. The alleged crime happened in early October but was not publicly known until news outlets reported it Thursday.

In response to a request for a complaint filed against Ziegler, the Sarasota police provided a heavily redacted report that only revealed a few words, including “raped” and “sexually battered.” Police said the active investigation meant no other information, including the names in the report, could be disclosed.

No charges have been filed in the case. Christian Ziegler’s attorney has said Ziegler is working with police and will be exonerated.

According to the Florida Center for Government Accountability, which cited anonymous sources, the woman who filed the report against Christian Ziegler with police said that she had been in a long-term, consensual three-way relationship with Ziegler and his wife. The Tampa Bay Times has not independently confirmed that information.

Bridget Ziegler does not appear to be facing any criminal allegations. But critics nevertheless have called for her to step aside as a board member of Sarasota County Schools.

Both Zieglers have crafted their political careers around recent culture wars, such as opposing certain LGBTQ+ inclusive programs in schools. Bridget Ziegler stood behind DeSantis when he signed the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics as Don’t Say Gay, which restricted classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Bridget Ziegler, who also is a co-founder of the influential education group Moms for Liberty, has not responded to requests for comment made by phone and social media.

Moms for Liberty, which has become a powerful conservative political force, has both declared its support for, and distanced itself from, the co-founder since the news.

The group posted on the social media platform X: “We stand with @BridgetAZiegler & every other badass woman fighting for kids & America.” In a separate statement, the group also noted that “Bridget was an original founder of Moms for Liberty but she stepped back from the organization’s board in 2021.”

Former Sarasota County School Board member Jane Goodwin said the public deserves an explanation.

”The optics of this are very bad,” Goodwin said. “It’s the hypocrisy of it.”

Goodwin said she would encourage Ziegler to attend the board’s next meeting on Dec. 12 and speak up, then consider stepping down.

Karen Rose, the board’s chairperson, said the district is monitoring the situation.

Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, recently has written about the role of Moms for Liberty in school board elections. He said the Florida-based organization is young enough that publicity over an investigation like this could damage its efforts to influence education policy — regardless of the ultimate outcome.

“I do worry that we as a country are in a place to pounce on this sort of thing before we know the truth, and there are some serious allegations in this,” Valant said.

DeSantis, as the most powerful elected Republican in Florida, is likely to have huge sway over what happens with leadership within the state GOP. Since the criminal investigation into Ziegler was publicly revealed, the state party has not said whether it plans to leave Ziegler in place as chairperson, saying only that it is “aware of the allegations.”

With less than two months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the start of the 2024 Republican presidential primary season, any leadership changes will likely need to happen swiftly. Before DeSantis weighed in, at least one county-level Republican Party chairperson said Ziegler should not have to resign unless the allegations were proven true, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

On Friday, few officials made public statements about what comes next for the party. Both of Florida’s top Republican lawmakers, House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, declined to comment.

“These are allegations. We have no idea if they are true or false,” Hillsborough Republican Party chairperson Dana Galen said. “We are not going to comment on this officially until all of the facts are dealt with through the legal system.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.