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Playground Pols

The Arizona Republican Primary Is Ground Zero for America’s Hysteria Over Critical Race Theory and Drag Queens

Kari Lake and other far-right candidates have latched onto a controversy in the Scottsdale school district whipped up by conservative mothers.

Patrick Breen/The Republic/Imagn
Amy Carney, a parent who called for the resignation of Jann-Michael Greenburg, then the governing board president of the Scottsdale Unified School District, spoke during a protest in May 2021.
Amy Carney, a parent who called for the resignation of Jann-Michael Greenburg, then the governing board president of the Scottsdale Unified School District, spoke during a protest in May 2021.

“We’ve been called every name in the book: domestic terrorists, racists, bigots, disruptors—angry mom,” Trish Olson, a mother of three in Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a campaign ad released last December by the gubernatorial campaign for Kari Lake. A political novice who denies that Joe Biden is the lawfully elected president, Lake secured a Trump endorsement in September 2021, almost a year before the crowded GOP primary. Along with pushing Trump’s election lies, Lake also promotes a full range of conspiracy theories that have come to define American conservatism over the past few years—that schools seized on the coronavirus pandemic to usurp parental rights; that “critical race theory,” or CRT, threatens white children’s education; that teachers are “grooming” children for gender and sexual deviance.

Ever since Glenn Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia last year made running against public education seem like a winning strategy, Republicans across the country have latched on to CRT and related arguments about liberals ruining schools as their 2022 midterms game plan. And in Arizona, that moral panic has centered on Scottsdale—a district encompassing some 22,000 students in 29 K-12 schools. As the school district turned into a destination for Republican candidates in the state, a powerful political narrative became attached to a real place with real kids—one that the GOP aims to ride to victory in campaigns this fall. “To have somebody like Kari standing up with us, it helps us keep the pressure on the district,” Olson said in the ad. Another mom added: “She is a fellow mama bear.”

In 2020, a cohort of mothers began organizing through a private Facebook group, focusing in on Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) board meetings—first, to oppose school closures and masks as a Covid prevention measure, and then to oppose “critical race theory,” such as they misunderstood it. Steve Bannon would anoint such conflicts then unfolding across the country “the Tea Party to the 10th power,” proclaiming, “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms.”

Nearly 900 school districts across the United States were targeted in similar ­anti-CRT campaigns, according to researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. They found that both national right-wing figures such as Bannon and local groups like the Scottsdale moms saw the campaigns as a path to broader political power. As this strain of racist right-wing politics gained strength, liberals tended to discount it as a culture war, a ploy to retake Congress, just as Bannon proudly admitted to—even as, almost immediately, the culture war threw the counties that served as the stage into real battles.

In Scottsdale, it was Jann-Michael Greenburg, SUSD’s governing board president, who became the main character in their drama. Greenburg was a 24-year-old recent law school grad when he was elected to the school board in 2018, coming to some local prominence for demanding the board address past financial misconduct. After a May 2021 board meeting was shut down when parents refused to wear masks, Greenburg publicly pushed back on the protests over CRT and related panics unfolding in the district—“a deliberate misinformation campaign,” he told The Arizona Republic. Antisemitic attacks on Greenburg ramped up alongside the anti-CRT campaign. It was amid this escalation that a group of mothers in Scottsdale propped up a scandal saying Greenburg had “targeted” them through an alleged “dossier.”

In an email Greenburg sent last August to a parent, an attached screenshot inadvertently revealed the URL for a Google Drive folder—the purported dossier. Members of the private Facebook group shared a version of the folder with the Scottsdale Independent, after which the parents, national conservatives, and Arizona Republicans running for office mounted a public campaign expressing outrage that the school board was spying on families. One of the mothers in the Facebook group, Amanda Wray, called the dossier “cyberstalking.”

The “dossier” largely contained public information, the Scottsdale Independent acknowledged: screen recordings of social media posts, public financial records, and, oddly, videos that Greenburg’s father, Mark, shot of himself while he was making videos of parents in public, gathering signatures for a recall campaign against his son.

Nevertheless, news of this alleged “dossier” hit the national media, from The Daily Caller to The New Yorker. Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA praised the moms’ efforts. The Republican hatchet man behind the CRT and grooming panics, Christopher Rufo, called Greenburg a “creep.” Greenburg maintained he had nothing to do with this dossier. Still, Greenburg had already begun wearing a bulletproof vest to board meetings, out of caution.

As the Scottsdale moms used the “dossier” to claim the moral high ground, the 2022 campaigns took off. In a June 2021 video, after the SUSD board meeting when parents planned to force CRT on to the agenda, Kari Lake pledged, “It’s also time that we start putting our children’s education first, by banning curriculum that pushes a political agenda.” Lake later drew on the dossier story to promote a plan to install cameras in classrooms so parents could monitor educators, saying the surveillance “should be going the other way.” Across Arizona, Republican candidates tried to draw on the conflict to portray themselves as defenders of children. Wendy Rogers, a Republican Arizona state senator who gained national attention after she was censured for speaking at a white nationalist conference, railed against the “Orwellian” SUSD. Ron Watkins, best known as the former administrator of the website once known as 8chan, and one of the people believed to be the voice of the invented “Q” behind QAnon, used an appearance at a January 2022 SUSD board meeting to denounce members for promoting “transexual propaganda” and to promote his own campaign for Congress.

But Lake seemed to connect most closely with the Scottsdale moms. She joined them outside an SUSD board meeting in November 2021, in which members voted to remove Greenburg as president (though he kept his seat on the board). “The left and these tyrants in the school board have awoken a sleeping giant and it’s pissed off moms and dads,” Lake said. Her arm was around Amanda Wray, who in a few weeks would be featured in Lake’s ad. (Arizona’s primary is next Tuesday. Polls give Lake an edge in the GOP primary for the governor’s race, while Watkins’ congressional campaign stands next to no chance.)

There is something Trumpian—which is to say, propagandistic and unashamed—in the moms’ political work, transforming school board meetings into a platform for national politics, in which the stated goal of improving education plays a distant runner-up role to advancing a nakedly white and patriarchal political agenda.

The broader narrative of moms under attack was gaining some national heft. Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec claimed that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland had “authorized the FBI Counterterrorism Division to target parents at schoolboard meetings,” and Lake chimed in, tweeting, “If I was governor right now I would pull any funding that was being used by the FBI to investigate concerned parents and redirect it to investigate complaints by parents that school board members are violating their parental rights with COVID/mask mandates.” Their claims about Garland functioned to boost the “dossier” story circulating at the same time. They were wildly unfounded: An investigation by local police concluded in December 2021 that Greenburg had not engaged in criminal conduct. The “dossier” had actually belonged to his father and didn’t violate any laws, since it contained open source and public documents, police said. This was announced several days before Lake released her ad featuring the moms.

The purported “targeting” of Scottsdale parents remains a flash point as the midterms approach. In June, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich—who is also in the middle of a competitive Republican primary to run for U.S. Senate—took legal action attempting to remove Jann-Michael Greenburg from the SUSD school board. And Arizona is far from alone. In mid-July, Moms for Liberty, one of the central conservative groups organizing against school boards, held a national conference, where Senator Rick Scott, the head of Republicans’ efforts to retake the U.S. Senate, directly linked local school agitation to the GOP’s midterms prospects. “If you guys run, you are going to make everybody else win,” he told the convention.

Wray, meanwhile, was advising her allies to broaden their attack: to stop saying CRT, and to target those who train students in “social justice.” Wray is one of the 1.3 million followers of Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account that has been at the center of reorienting the right around a conspiracy theory that children in public schools are secretly being “groomed” to be trans. Wray retweeted a grainy scan of an exercise for students to confront homophobia that Libs of TikTok had shared and added that SUSD staff “are grooming children with inappropriate conversations and exercises.” Kari Lake, naturally, jumped on the latest conservative scapegoat threatening Arizona’s children. “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens,” Lake posted. “They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow. They seek to disarm Americans and militarize our Enemies. Let’s bring back the basics: God, Guns & Glory.” She closed with a flag emoji.