Democrats, Moms for Liberty offer dueling messages in Tampa

Competing political strategies and a debate about which side has more "grassroots" support continued playing out Saturday between Moms For Liberty, an emerging conservative powerhouse, and a Florida Democratic Party looking to reinvent itself.

Moms for Liberty and the Democratic Party held dueling weekend events at downtown Tampa hotels connected by a pedestrian bridge. The events came less than four months before Florida voters will decide high-stakes races, including battles for the governor’s mansion and a U.S. Senate seat.

While the organizations appeared to mingle little, Democrats and members of Moms for Liberty lobbed criticisms about whose message is resonating with everyday Floridians.

Moms For Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former Indian River County School Board member, said the group’s impact goes beyond education after it gained prominence on issues such as opposing school mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We’re upsetting the balance of power in a lot of different ways. Not just between the teacher's unions and parents, and who has the leading voice in children's education, but then also in the political world," Justice told The News Service of Florida on Friday.

"So, I would think that there are probably some Democrats who aren’t thrilled with us," Justice added. "I know for a fact that there are Republicans who are not thrilled with us. Because we are beholden to our children, our families, our country and each other. That’s powerful. American parents are the true political party in America today."

But Democrats argued that Moms For Liberty’s political power is overstated.

Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins appeared with Democratic Party officials during a Friday news conference that was called to respond to a speech by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Moms for Liberty event.

"I accept criticism, I am no stranger to it. And I think as Democrats we need to acknowledge that we haven’t been doing the best job to talk about the wonderful things we’re doing in our public schools," Jenkins said.

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But Jenkins described Moms for Liberty as "absolutely a vocal minority. And as somebody who is from the birthplace of that organization, I haven’t had one Moms For Liberty wearing a T-shirt in my school board meetings in months. So I believe it is a … facade, the strength of this organization. I think their focus had started, maybe, as a grassroots organization to get moms involved in their school board. It has moved as a vehicle for political tactics and, at this point right now, our governor."

DeSantis helped kick off the Moms for Liberty inaugural "summit" with an hour-long speech punctuated by numerous standing ovations. DeSantis focused heavily on education issues, including what he characterized as "drawing a clear line in the sand" on preventing "indoctrination" in classrooms. DeSantis also put a spotlight on Republican efforts to get conservatives elected to school boards.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., spoke Saturday at the Moms For Liberty event and said conservatives’ success in school-board races nationwide translates to victories up the ballot. Scott used the example of Tiffany Smiley, a U.S. Senate candidate from Washington state, which he called "a very difficult state to win."

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"She can win that race, if we do a good job with the school board races. It’s all about getting out the vote," Scott said.

DeSantis, who is widely viewed as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has made education a linchpin of his re-election campaign this year. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz said Democrats will focus on ramping up their message to voters on education.

"We’re going to talk about what we’ve done for education since I was a little 6-year-old kid from Cuba, what they (Republicans) have failed to do, and how they have made our system worse than it was," Diaz said. "So, we’re going to point out the differences, that’s what we’re going to do."

But campaigning on education likely won’t be enough for Democrats, who have not won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994 and have been overtaken by Republicans in statewide voter registration.

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"Politically and strategically, we’re also going to talk about things that we’re doing in different races and how we’re going to get the messages out. And how we’re all working together as a Florida statewide coordinated campaign to elect candidates that hold the values and ideas of the Democratic Party," Diaz said.

Democrats held their weekend "Leadership Blue" event, a major party conference, at the JW Marriott hotel as Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist compete in an Aug. 23 primary to challenge DeSantis in the Nov. 8 general election.

Fried said Republicans "have a game plan" and that Democrats "have to stand up and fight back." Crist said Democrats "better be united" after the primary, "or we’re screwed."

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Part of the overarching message from Democrats during the event was that they must match Republicans’ ability to align as a party.

Jeff Greene, a consultant for the National Democratic Training Committee, conducted a Saturday training session about how to effectively raise money. Greene, who has been involved in Democratic politics since 2008, told the News Service that he sees Republicans as "more structured, whereas Democrats are much more organic."

"On the Republican side it’s very structured. You go for school board, and then you go for city council, and then you go for county council, and then you go for state, and then you go for feds," Greene said. "So, it’s one of the things that I think the (Democratic) party is getting better at. Half of it is, as a Democratic candidate, you don’t feel like you’re getting supported by the party. And we’re trying to change that message as well."

At the nearby Tampa Marriott Water Street hotel, Moms for Liberty held "strategy" sessions Friday and Saturday on issues such as helping candidates run in school board races.

The organization, which was founded in Florida, told the News Service that more than 500 people attended the event from 30 states as far away as Hawaii.

Justice pushed back against Jenkins’ contention that Moms for Liberty isn’t a grassroots group.

"I think they’re trying to convince themselves that we’re not a grassroots movement, because they recognize the threat that we pose," the Moms For Liberty co-founder said.