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DeSantis and Trump among the 2024 GOP hopefuls appearing at the annual Moms for Liberty gathering

DeSantis stands in front of a podium that reads "Moms for Liberty."
Matt Rourke/AP
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AP
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Gov. Ron DeSantis says that 2024 will be the year that parents “finally fight back” as he kicks off an annual gathering of Moms for Liberty that is drawing top GOP candidates.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that 2024 will be the year that parents “finally fight back” as he kicked off the annual gathering of Moms for Liberty, a group that has fiercely opposed instruction related to race and gender identity in the nation’s classrooms.

The two-year-old group, which was founded in Florida in 2021 to fight local COVID school mask mandates and quarantine requirements, has quickly become a force in conservative politics as an advocate for “parental rights” in education. But it has also been accused of preaching hate, with the Southern Poverty Law Center recently labeling it an “extremist” group for allegedly harassing community members, advancing anti-LGBTQ+ misinformation and fighting to scrub diverse and inclusive material from lesson plans.

The conference has nonetheless drawn leading Republican presidential candidates, including DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, the race's frontrunner, who is set to speak later Friday afternoon.

DeSantis, in his remarks, praised the group for “coming under attack by the left," saying it was “a sign that we are winning this fight.” He ran through his efforts in Florida to ban discussions of race and sexual identity in classrooms as well as certain books from school libraries. And he pledged to “fight the woke" as president.

“I think what we’ve seen across this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in the country: Mama bears. And they’re ready to roll," he said, predicting moms would be “the key political force for this 2024 cycle.”

“2024 is going to be the year when the parents across the county finally fight back," he said.

"I think what we’ve seen across this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in the country: Mama bears. And they’re ready to roll."
Gov. Ron DeSantis

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is also slated to address the group Friday at the downtown Philadelphia hotel hosting the conference. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are set to give remarks on Saturday.

Their attendance underscores the influence of the group, which has made connections with powerful GOP organizations, politicians and donors to become a major player in 2024.

The group has transformed from three Florida moms opposing COVID-19 mandates in 2021 to claiming 285 chapters across 45 states. Along the way, it has found a close ally in DeSantis, who was presented with a “liberty sword” at the group's first annual meeting last year and has signed multiple bills that Moms for Liberty supported.

Beyond remarks from the candidates and other speakers, the summit will feature strategy sessions on such topics as “protecting kids from gender ideology” and “comprehensive sex education: sex ed or sexualization.”

Roughly 100 parent activists and LGBTQ+ advocates gathered Friday to protest outside the conference, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of the group as an “anti-government extremist” organization. They chanted, “Not in our city” and “Let's say gay."

Others mentioned recent incidents, including an Indiana Moms for Liberty chapter publishing an Adolf Hitler quote in its newsletter before apologizing and removing it, and a Tennessee chapter complaining about lessons on Black civil rights figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges.

“We are going to be loud and we are going to be loving and we are going to be full of positive energy,” People for the American Way national field director Alana Byrd said outside the hotel, ahead of DeSantis' morning address. “All we want is the freedom to learn and the freedom to read for children and grandchildren in this country.”

In the days before the conference, several historical associations, state senators, activists and employees at Philadelphia's Museum of the American Revolution had pleaded unsuccessfully with the museum to cancel a welcome event for the conference planned for Thursday night.

“I would hope that we teach the totality of history. And, yes, it might make you feel a little bad or sad or something, but that’s part of history.”
Maureen Carreño

“The very history that we’re presenting within the walls of the museum is a more diverse and therefore more accurate telling of history," said Trish Norman, an assistant curator at the museum who protested the event. "And Moms for Liberty is notorious for erasing LGBTQ voices and Black voices from history.”

The museum told The Associated Press that “because fostering understanding within a democratic society is so central to our mission, rejecting visitors on the basis of ideology would in fact be antithetical to our purpose.”

People for the American Way was among several groups planning to rally against the gathering. Its "Grandparents for Truth” campaign was mobilizing grandparents and other supporters “who are fighting for the next generation’s freedom to learn.”

One such grandparent, Maureen Carreño, said she wasn’t taught a diverse history as a child and wants something different for her five grandkids.

“I would hope that we teach the totality of history," she said. “And, yes, it might make you feel a little bad or sad or something, but that’s part of history.”

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice said the protesters “obviously don’t know very much about our organization,” and if they wanted to, “they could have come to the summit instead of standing on the street.”

Though Moms for Liberty says it is nonpartisan, it has largely drawn conservative support. The group also has fought to elect conservative candidates to school boards around the country.

While the group’s status as a 501(c)4 nonprofit means it doesn’t have to disclose its funders, its public donors include conservative powerhouses such as the Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute, a national political training organization.

Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian cellphone company paying to sponsor Trump’s remarks at the conference, has a political action committee that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to take charge of Texas school boards.

Mom for Liberty’s Florida-based PAC also has received a $50,000 donation from Julie Fancelli, a Republican donor whose family owns Publix grocery stores and who helped fund Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, according to House Jan. 6 committee findings. Fancelli didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running in the Democratic presidential primary, had been scheduled to speak at the group’s summit, but his “campaign told us his schedule changed,” Justice said.

Kennedy's press team said he dropped out “for family reasons.” Hours later, Kennedy said during a town hall with NewsNation that he “made a mistake by accepting that invitation” and that once he learned of Moms for Liberty's positions on LGBTQ+ issues, he “declined to go.”