Moms for Liberty, DeSantis earn school board wins but not in Central Florida

Orlando Sentinel | By Martin E. Comas and Leslie Postal | September 1, 2022

Moms For Liberty, the organization launched by a trio of Florida mothers nearly two years ago, quickly grew into a conservative political powerhouse and had reason to celebrate on Election Day last week.

So did Gov. Ron DeSantis, who this summer took the unprecedented step of endorsing school board candidates, touting conservative Republicans whose education agenda meshed with his.

Five school boards, including those in Duval and Miami-Dade counties, flipped on Aug. 23 to what Moms for Liberty called a “parental rights majority”— opposing mask mandates, books they called pornographic and lessons they viewed as inappropriately teaching about communism, race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

But in Central Florida, Moms for Liberty did miserably at the polls. The one exception was Alicia Farrant, a Moms for Liberty member and candidate for the Orange County School Board. She was the top vote-getter in the crowded District 3 race and heads to a November runoff against Michael Daniels, a college administrator.

Even in Seminole, a rock-solid Republican county, the three school board candidates backed by Moms for Liberty were trounced at the polls. Agar Quiñones-Aristone, a teacher at a private Christian school, for example, finished last in a four-way race, receiving 14% of the vote.

Neither the group’s nor the governor’s message ― DeSantis largely stayed out of the Central Florida fray while endorsing 30 school board candidates elsewhere in the state — resonated in the region, where voters care more about quality public schools and less about the culture war topics, said candidates and campaign observers.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school, March 28, 2022 in Shady Hills, Fla. The law, which critics dubbed “don’t say gay,” is part of the governor’s effort to reshape education in the state, which has also included the unusual step of endorsing candidates in school board races. (Douglas R. Clifford/AP)

Seminole, gaining Democrats in recent years, is a county where residents pride themselves on their high-performing public schools.

“What we are doing in Seminole County in regards to our schools is working,” said Autumn Garick, a Seminole school board candidate for District 1. “Seminole County schools are a key economic driver. They are the reason people move to Seminole. It’s because of the schools. … And we certainly have some challenges. But those challenges are not the noise that we’re hearing from the outside.”

Garick, the top vote-getter in her race, faces Dana Fernandez in a runoff election on Nov. 8.

Fernandez, a former New York City teacher who recently moved to Florida, was not endorsed by Moms for Liberty. But her campaign’s priorities mirror the organization’s, including advocating against mask mandates and doing away with critical race theory, already banned in Florida’s public schools.

Fernandez did not return messages for comment.

Lynn Moira Dictor, chair of the Seminole County Democratic Party, said Moms for Liberty is a “very vocal loud minority” that pushes for priorities out of step with most residents.

“Seminole County is not that extreme,” she said in explaining the candidates’ poor performance. “Seminole County does not want to ban books or burn books. Seminole County does not want to teach a one-sided history lesson or a hateful lesson.”

Longwood resident Jessica Tillmann, who launched the Seminole chapter of Moms for Liberty in 2021, said her group will continue to stay focused on their message despite their candidates’ poor showing at the polls.

“We are about parental rights,” the mother of four young children said this week. “We want to make sure that parents have a say.”

Tillmannadded, “We’re not here to dismantle schools. … We’re here to work with schools.”

Her organization has not yet decided who it will back in the November school board elections.

Moms for Liberty members, from left, Cheryl Bryant, Mishelle Minella, Jessica Tillmann and Kelly Shilson pose for a portrait with an American flag at Reiter Park on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Longwood, Fla. Tillmann is the chair of the group’s Seminole County chapter. (Chasity Maynard/Orlando Sentinel via AP) (Chasity Maynard/AP)

In Osceola County, voters rejected two candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty and another who espoused similar views and posted a photo of DeSantis on her campaign Facebook page.

Terry Castillo, the board’s chair, was reelected last week, winning a three-way race that included a candidate backed by the moms group.

“I think they thought Osceola was more divided and dissatisfied than they were,” Castillo said.

Residents want the school board to focus on the problems that worry them, including a shortage of teachers, bus drivers and other staff, she said. The negative, culture-war battles — Castillo said she was called a “groomer” — didn’t win votes this summer.

“I don’t think the public is having any of it,” she said.

In Orange, the board’s chair, Teresa Jacobs, a Republican who previously served two terms as county mayor, coasted to a victory over two more-conservative candidates who touted DeSantis’ views. Board member Angie Gallo, another Republican, also easily won re-election, trouncing her opponent, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty.

But in the District 3 race, an area that runs from just south of downtown Orlando to the south county line, Farrant led the pack in a five-way race.

The mother of five started attending school board meetings regularly during the pandemic to speak against rules requiring face masks on campus. Last year, she urged the Orange school board to yank books she called “pornographic” from school libraries.

Her campaign is about “back to basics” education, she said during an interview the Orlando Sentinel editorial board in August.

Teresa Jacobs, Orange County School Board Chairman, celebrates with supporters at The Tap Room at Dubsdread in Orlando on election night, Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Jacobs, who easily won over challengers who supported Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education platform. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Farrant appeared with DeSantis at a March press conference when he signed a bill into law that imposes term limits on board members and gives parents more power to scrutinize books in classrooms and libraries, a measure opponents say has lead to censorship and book bans.

Farrant was not among the candidates DeSantis endorsed, however.

She did not respond to a phone message, or text and emails requesting comment on the election.

Judi Hayes, who is working on Daniels’ campaign and is a regional organizer for Families For Strong Public Schools, said she expects voters who backed other candidates in that race will coalesce around Daniels in November and reject Farrant and Moms for Liberty.

Like others, Hayes said local voters “want our kids to get a high-quality, inclusive education” and don’t view positively candidates like Farrant “who want to tear it down.”

Besides, Orange is a Democrat-dominated county, which likely explains why DeSantis didn’t endorse Farrant or other candidates who touted their support of his policies, she said. “I think he knew they were going to lose Orange County.”

DeSantis’ only school board endorsements in the region were in Volusia County. A pastor who denied the pandemic and from the pulpit shared QAnon conspiracy theories lost and another, an incumbent, must win in November to hold onto her seat.

Nineteen of the 30 candidates the governor backed won in August, and six more did well enough to move to the runoff.

But across the state, DeSantis mostly endorsed school board candidates in heavily Republican counties, such as Flagler and Lee, where conservative candidates likely would have won regardless. In some places, including Clay and Miami-Dade counties, he backed GOP challengers against Republican incumbents.

“70% of school board members in the state of Florida are registered Republicans, over 80% of school boards already held a Republican majority. Who exactly were you taking the schools back FROM?” tweeted Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, sharing reports that called DeSantis’ school wins less startling than some headlines suggested.

Equality Florida, the LGBTQ civil rights group that opposed many of DeSantis’ new education laws, supported school board candidates who opposed DeSantis. The group noted that in Alachua, Hillsborough and Monroe counties incumbents beat back challenges from DeSantis-backed candidates.

“The extremist takeover was real – but limited,” the group tweeted.

Moms for Liberty and DeSantis had the most success in Sarasota County, where three governor-endorsed candidates won, including incumbent Bridget Ziegler, one of Moms for Liberty’s founders.

The group noted that in 22 counties, its candidates either won or are in a runoff. “2022 IS THE YEAR OF THE PARENT and we are just getting started,” the group tweeted the after the election.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said DeSantis’ support of candidates backed by Moms for Liberty gives the organization “some extra heft,” particularly in the state’s more conservative areas.

Past grass-roots organizations that have backed political candidates tended to fade after a while, Jewett said. For example, the Tea Party loudly objected to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which required most Americans to have health insurance. After the mandate was dissolved at the federal level in 2019, and Obamacare became more established, the Tea Party began to fade.

“Whether they have staying power, and whether they continue to grow and have influence, we’ll have to see,” he said, noting that mask mandates, which galvanized Moms for Liberty members, are no longer in place. “Because, for how many election cycles can you stay angry and motivated?”

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