Behind the effort to keep Moms for Liberty out of Wisconsin politics

Milwaukee protest

Shortly after it was determined that Milwaukee would host the first primary debate for the Republican candidates running for president in 2024, Moms for Liberty, a far-right, anti-LGBTQ education advocacy organization, announced it would host a town hall discussion with several candidates hours before the debate.

Immediately after the group announced the town hall, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, a teachers union, along with other groups, put pressure on the venue hosting the town hall to cancel. “Groups like Moms for Liberty are not welcome in Milwaukee,” MTEA posted on its social media accounts. “Any venue that decides to host Moms for Liberty will hear from MTEA.”

Days later, Moms for Liberty, which was categorized earlier this year as an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, took to Twitter to announce, “Our ‘Giving Parents a Voice’ Town Hall venue in Milwaukee canceled over the weekend because the fight for parental rights is so controversial.” Several other venues canceled events the group planned in the days leading up to the GOP debate after pressure from the MTEA, leaving the Moms for Liberty organizers scrambling to find new venues.

The presidential town hall was originally set to take place at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee, but the center said that it would not be hosting any Moms for Liberty events when contacted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Instead, Moms for Liberty pivoted to hosting a conversation with Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson at the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Moms for Liberty also had to find new last-minute venues for a school board candidate training event and a conversation with former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines, who’s become a prominent anti-trans television personality in the past couple years.

Amy Mizialko, the president of the MTEA, told the American Independent Foundation: “We wanted people to know that this wasn’t something that the MTEA was going to tolerate, that this is a group that is proud to bring harm to students, and some of our students who are most vulnerable. MTEA will not tolerate that kind of targeting and harassment and abuse of, in particular, LGBTQ+ students and their families.”

Since its founding in Florida in January 2021, Moms for Liberty has quickly grown in size, with more than 115,000 members in 285 chapters across the country. The group has stoked controversy with its promotion of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, opposition to teaching students about racism, and banning of books it deems inappropriate for kids. While chapters of Moms for Liberty have formed in 45 states, few have seen more rapid expansion than Wisconsin, which currently has at least 11 county chapters that, according to reporting from Wisconsin Watch, range in membership size anywhere from a few hundred members to a few thousand. Moms for Liberty’s growing presence in the state has mobilized coalitions of education advocates, unions, and activists to push back and protest the group’s far-right agenda.

Moms for Liberty first came to attention in Wisconsin two years ago when members of its Kenosha chapter disrupted a school board meeting at which it had been planned to discuss COVID school safety measures and mask mandates for students. The co-chair of the Kenosha chapter, Amanda Nedweski, who was present at the meeting, later launched an unsuccessful effort to recall the Kenosha School Board president over COVID safety measures. According to Wisconsin Watch, the attempt boosted Nedweski’s profile enough to help her win election to the county board and the State Assembly.

In other parts of the state, Moms for Liberty chapters launched similar — and also unsuccessful — campaigns to recall school board members they deemed to be pushing a liberal agenda.

Mizialko said that Moms for Liberty hasn’t had much of a presence in Milwaukee County, which leans heavily Democratic. The union first noticed the group getting involved in the county in the spring of 2023, when Moms for Liberty endorsed Shandowlyon Hendricks Reaves to serve on the Milwaukee School Board.

The union launched public outreach to make sure voters in the community knew what a Moms for Liberty endorsement meant. “We certainly did our part, through our political action as a union, to make sure that folks were aware of just the kind of policies and work that Moms for Liberty tries to advance in local communities across the country,” Mizialko said.

When the MTEA learned about Moms for Liberty’s plans to host events before the first GOP presidential primary debate, Mizialko says, the group sprang into action. It publicly called on the venues set to host the events to cancel them. And when Moms for Liberty rescheduled its events at the Pfister Hotel, the MTEA organized a protest outside the hotel.

The MTEA isn’t the only group with boots on the ground pushing back against Moms for Liberty’s expanding presence in Wisconsin. The Coalition to March on the RNC 2024, an activist group planning a major protest at the 2024 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, also protested outside of the Pfister Hotel. On Aug. 14, an LGBTQ activist group in Outagamie County called Hate Free Outagamie protested outside of a Moms for Liberty event in Appleton.

As of now, Moms for Liberty doesn’t have any other events planned in Milwaukee. But with the city set to host the RNC next year, Mizialko anticipates that the group’s presence will continue to grow in the city. She says her union is ready to protest whatever events the group might try to organize.

“Our members are politically astute and socially justice-minded and know very well what they’ve done and achieved in other school districts in other states,” she said. “The MTEA strives to be a social justice union and is proud of that. MTEA has taken positions in the past about Black Lives Matter and making sure that Milwaukee Public Schools is a sanctuary district for students and families. And this is in alignment with positions and values that we hold dear and very seriously.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.