PHILADELPHIA - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday cast the 2024 election as 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 at a downtown Philadelphia hotel, 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 country finally fight back," he said.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, another GOP candidate, railed against transgender women athletes competing on women’s sports teams — an issue that has become a major flashpoint for the right and that she called "one of the biggest women’s issues of our time."
"They are literally trying to erase all the progress we have made in all of this time," she said. "We have to fight for our girls."
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are set to give remarks at the conference Saturday.
The high interest in the event among GOP hopefuls underscores the influence of Moms for Liberty, which has made connections with powerful GOP organizations, politicians and donors to become a major player in 2024. The group has said it doesn’t plan to endorse any presidential candidate in the primary election.
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."
Summit attendees said they liked what they were hearing so far.
"I love Moms for Liberty," said Debbie McGinley, who is running for the school board in Methacton School District outside Philadelphia. As a parent of three kids who lost her business as a hairdresser during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she appreciated that the group is "fighting for our kids."
Lucy Reyna, a treasurer for a local Moms for Liberty chapter in Indiana, said she traveled to the conference to learn more about the national organization.
"What am I a part of? I need to know those things," Reyna said, adding that if the group leaned too partisan in one direction, it would make her reconsider her participation.
Outside, roughly 100 parent activists and LGBTQ+ advocates gathered to protest, 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" while holding signs that read, "Hate is not patriotic" and "Philly is the LGBTQest city."
Some protesters said specific incidents prompted their activism, 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.
"I think they stand for fear. And that turns into hate very quickly," said Molly Roses, a Philadelphia resident who joined the protest.
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 Thursday night. The event went on as planned.
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."
Haley in her speech acknowledged the protesters, saying she "appreciates that" as an expression of free speech.
People for the American Way was among several groups rallying against the gathering Friday. 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."
In her remarks ahead of DeSantis' speech, Moms for Liberty National Director of Engagement Tia Bess rejected claims that the group is racist.
"Do I look like a racist to y'all?" Bess, who is Black, told the overwhelmingly white audience.
Tiffany Justice, one of the group's co-founders, responded sarcastically to the SPLC's "extremist" label onstage Friday, referring to herself as "the face of domestic terrorism, apparently."
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."
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press video journalist David R. Martin contributed reporting.
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