As community veers right, political division tears apart Sarasota, Fla.

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SARASOTA, Fla. — This sleepy county on Florida’s west coast was once known mostly as a haven for retirees who want to enjoy sunshine and the arts.

But at a school board meeting last month, it took only a few minutes for raw bitterness to erupt.

During the three-hour meeting, a conservative school board member insulted the board’s attorney for second-guessing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). A teacher made an emotional plea for help, saying that false accusations of wrongdoing were crippling her and other educators’ ability to teach. At one point, four police officers had to usher a parent from the meeting after being accused of derogatory behavior.

Residents here say this level of rancor in local government is no longer uncommon. From county commission meetings to neighborhood association gatherings, Sarasota County has become an example of just how deeply the nation’s partisan divisions are bleeding into local government, curdling the relationship between residents and their civic leaders.

“Our state is really in turmoil,” said Jane Goodwin, chairwoman of the Sarasota School Board, who worries that her county offers a preview of the toxic politics sweeping through Florida. “I see it as a darker place, as a different, more difficult place.”

It’s a fight centered around whether this traditional Republican county will remain moderate or embrace the brash brand of politics championed by DeSantis as he considers a possible presidential campaign. And it has increasingly pitted a group of left-leaning residents against Republican officials who have offered outspoken support for many of DeSantis’s most aggressive policies, including empowering parents to challenge school textbooks and banning teachers from discussing sexual orientation in elementary school.

The left-leaning activists are particularly focused on Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler — the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who is also a specialist in targeting political messages to specific demographic groups — and his wife, Sarasota School Board Member Bridget Ziegler, who helped found Moms for Liberty, a controversial conservative group advocating for more parental control in schools.

The activists and other Democrats say the Zieglers are using Sarasota County as an incubator for controversial social issues that fire up conservatives but don’t serve the county’s residents. They also accuse the Zieglers of embracing divisive political figures and organizations, including Christian Ziegler’s recent push to provide Rumble, a video platform that is popular with conservatives, with an economic grant to relocate here.

“There is a culture that the Zieglers have fostered that puts party over country, party over community and is all just about winning and they don’t care how they win,” said Cathy Antunes, 58, a Sarasota activist. “This has become the hatching place for a lot of Republican strategy and the alt-right, and if you don’t squash it at the local level, if you don’t call these people out where they live, it just spreads.”

In separate interviews, Christian Ziegler, 38, and Bridget Ziegler, 39, defended their tactics. Christian Ziegler said Antunes and her allies are just gadflies who are unfairly targeting his family because they “do not like Florida” and its embrace of “freedom” under DeSantis.

DeSantis “is the number one threat to those that want to crack down on freedom and want to fundamentally change the country into some sort of Socialist utopia,” Christian Ziegler said, adding his critics are upset Republicans dominated Democrats in voter-registration across Florida last year. “And because of that, they are dead set on branding Florida as some sort of extremist state.”

Bridget Ziegler, who helped DeSantis shape his “parental rights” agenda and stood next to the governor recently when he signed legislation limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, added she wears her values “on her sleeve” and won’t be bullied by the attacks on her character or credibility.

“They spend all of their time on keyboard or Twitter, I am actually doing work,” said Ziegler, a mother of three who joined the school board in 2014. “I got thick skin, and skin like leather, so it doesn’t deter me.”

Located about an hour south of Tampa, Sarasota County traces its history to Native Americans and the Spanish explorers who arrived onshore from the Gulf of Mexico.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that wealthy real estate developers from northern cities starting arriving in the region.

The first golf course in Florida was constructed in Sarasota in 1904, helping the city became even more of a magnet for rich families and northern philanthropists who savored the arts. Charles and John Ringling, the founders of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, were among those who took an early interest in the town.

Today, with about 450,000 residents living among some of the nation’s top-ranked beaches, Sarasota is a microcosm of both Florida’s pandemic-era real estate boom and its deepening political divide.

Over the past year, home prices in Sarasota County have jumped by nearly 30 percent as thousands of new residents have moved here, a trend that is helping to exacerbate conflicts over moral and political issues.

In 2008, President Barack Obama lost Sarasota County by just 211 votes. Today, Democrats continue to perform relatively well in neighborhoods near the city of Sarasota, which has a thriving restaurant scene and a historic opera house. But many suburban and rural parts of the county are drifting right. President Donald Trump carried the county by nearly 10 points in 2020.

The split between the county’s urban and exurban voters has touched off a series of divisive and personal fights here, especially connected to public education and the pandemic.

After a conservative school board member was defeated in a 2020, a 3-2 majority of moderate and left-leaning board members initially maintained a mask mandate for students, even after DeSantis and GOP legislators barred school districts from implementing one.

Gradually, the battles over face masks began morphing into even more-bitter confrontations over race and policies involving sexual orientation, with pastors and conservative activists repeatedly showing up at board meetings to attack the LGBTQ community.

“There was one preacher in particular, who just gave the most disgusting speech we ever heard in our lives,” said Carol Lerner, 76, a longtime advocate for public schools in Sarasota. “It was all about how we are going to run these perverts out of town, and how they are taking over our town, and taking over our schools.”

Furious over what she was hearing at board meetings, Lerner teamed up with Antunes and Lisa Schurr, who recently founded a group to directly challenge Moms for Liberty nationwide called Support Our Schools.

The women worried about the school board, but also saw the issues there as part of a broader rightward turn in the county. Together, the women began researching the conservative-orientated businesses and activist groups that increasingly operate in the county.

Of particular concern was the Hollow 2A, which bills itself as a wedding hall near Venice, Fla., but also hosts political events.

In March, Lerner produced a 30-page report on the 10-acre campus, which includes a “bunkerlike” entrance adorned with “call to arms” quotes referencing the Revolutionary War. Lerner hoped the report would serve as a road map that activists can use to identify conservatives that they believe are tarnishing the county’s mainstream political identity.

The report notes that the Hollow 2A campus hosts individuals associated with the Proud Boys, an extreme-right group whose members are known to engage in violence, as well as other individuals who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington.

Christian Ziegler said he’s never been to the Hollow 2A. But Ziegler, a former staffer on Capitol Hill, also faced questions from the local media about his attendance at the rally on the Ellipse that preceded the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Ziegler, who said he was in Washington for meetings that day, said he left the demonstration when he started to sense it could become violent.

The Hollow 2A facility, which also promotes firearms trainings, has become a hub for more mainstream Sarasota County political candidates, including hosting a fundraiser in support of Bridget Ziegler’s school board campaign in April. (Ziegler, who said she had a personal conflict, did not attend the event).

Victor G. Mellor, a local business executive who owns the facility, did not return phone calls to him and his son seeking comment. The website for the Hollow 2A describes the campus as “the place where Americans” can “gather to lawfully to take back our country.”

After taking on the Hollow 2A, the activists pivoted to a high-profile showdown with Christian Ziegler over what types of businesses should receive grant money to relocate to Sarasota County.

Ziegler and four other county commissioners — all Republican — voted in late October to explore awarding the Toronto-based company Rumble a $825,000 economic development grant if it relocated the county.

A few days later, the company announced it was moving its headquarters to Longboat Key, a peninsula where gated communities and resorts are tucked alongside golf courses and some of the nation’s most pristine beaches. DeSantis celebrated the move, saying Florida supports Rumble’s mission “to promote free expression and stand up to Big Tech censorship.”

Antunes, Schurr and other liberal Sarasota activists quickly jumped into gear, working to scuttle the county’s grant discussions.

They argued that Rumble’s presence would make Sarasota even more of a haven for conservative media companies, and also give Ziegler more opportunities to expand his political microtargeting business that places digital ads on cellphones, YouTube or the Internet. In recent months, Ziegler has done for work a Trump-aligned political action committee as well as for a committee that is working to defeat U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021.

The women teamed up with Sarasota’s Ukrainian American community, which largely opposed Rumble because the organization hosts RT news channel, which was previously known as ‘Russia Today.” The U.S. State Department has described Russia Today as “state-funded and state-directed,” and called it a critical part of “Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.”

Initially, Ziegler continued to defend the county grant, noting that Rumble’s relocation to Sarasota would create 165 jobs, including 41 that have an average salary of at least $170,000 per year. At commission in late March, Ziegler also stepped up his attacks on Antunes and Schurr, equating them to people who burn American flags.

“I sympathize with Ukraine, but here in America, the same people who are screaming about Rumble are the same people who think you should be burning flags, and this other stuff, which is protected in America and shouldn’t be,” Ziegler said during a commission meeting in late March.

“This is just an example of cancel culture,” Ziegler added.

He ultimately backed away from defending the grant when a became clear in mid April that a majority of his colleagues were now opposed to it.

Yet to Lerner and other left-leaning activists here, their confrontations over the Hollow 2A and Rumble symbolize a far more intimate debate about what type of community they want to live in, and whether they made a mistake by retiring to Florida.

In March, Sarasota Magazine published a story in March titled, “Bigwig Right-Wing Activists and Influencers Have Discovered Sarasota,” naming 10 conservative leaders with documented ties to the county, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Charlie Kirk, head of a pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA.

The Trump family’s new social media company, Trump Media & Technology Group, is planning to incorporate in Sarasota County, according to state business records that were first reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Trump plans to host his digital enterprise on Rumble.

“All of this is in contrast to why I moved here,” said Lerner, who retired to Sarasota seven years ago. “I moved here because it’s one of the best places for culture in the country. … You have very educated people. … It’s a very non-Florida type of place and I absolutely loved living here, until the past few years, with this right wing.”

Local residents and officials say the tension between the Zieglers and the activists is part of a deeper and more divisive culture taking root here.

Sarasota County School Board member Tom Edwards, who is openly gay, ousted a conservative member board in 2020, tilting the board to the left.

Since joining the board, Edwards said Moms for Liberty supporters have repeatedly made homophobic attacks against him, including implying he’s not qualified to be a leader of the school system because he does not have children of his own.

“We heard blatant racism. We heard bigotry. We heard homophobia, you name it, and we are there for hours just listening to that,” said Edwards, a retired entrepreneur. “And those are all people that the Zieglers, and their political machine, invited into the [school] board room to create chaos.”

Alexis Spiegelman, chairwoman of Moms for Liberty-Sarasota, denied that her members use abusive or offensive language at government meetings. She added liberal activists just aren’t used to receiving “pushback” from parents worried about their child’s education.

Goodwin, the school board chairwoman, said that conservative activists like the Zieglers have developed an effective strategy for both generating upheaval within the school system and turning those issues into nationwide debates in conservative media.

On April 19, for example, Goodwin kicked a woman — who frequently testifies at board meetings about the district’s covid-19 and LGBTQ policies — out of the meeting room because Goodwin believed she was about to use insulting language.

The following day, Christian Ziegler blasted an email to Sarasota Republicans accusing Goodwin of violating the parent’s First Amendment rights. A day later, Fox News aired a story on the incident. Within hours, Goodwin’s office was inundated with vulgar and threatening messages.

“Do I blame [the Zielgers]? ‘Yes’,” Goodwin said. “Because to them, it’s all about the politics of drama, which they think they need to get elected.”

In an interview, Bridget Ziegler denied contributing to political divisions but vowed to continue to be a “consistent” voice encouraging public input at government meetings.

“I am a mother of three. I have a private-sector job. I take this time very selfishly because I want to get stuff done, so I don’t have time to bring up things that I know are going to cause more polarization,” she said. “However, there are items that I will fight very hard for.”

The Zieglers and some of their conservative allies also accuse the liberal activists of engaging in their own smear campaign. Christian Ziegler, for example, accused liberal activists of spreading social media memes comparing him to Adolf Hitler, even though he said his late grandmother was forced into a Nazi labor camp in Eastern Europe during World War II.

Karen Rose, the other conservative on the Sarasota school board, said she also feels that the liberal activists have gone too far in trying to discredit their political opponents.

In December, after Rose spoke at an event at the Hollow 2A, Schurr and three other founders of Support Our Schools published an op-ed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune accusing the school board member of being sympathetic to the Proud Boys.

Rose, who spent more than two decades working as a special-education teacher before joining the school board, said in an interview that she attended the event because several parents asked to speak about how best to implement “individual education plans” for at-risk students. At the time, Rose she didn’t even know what kind of events were held at the Hollow 2A.

“If an individual wants to politicize something that involves exceptional student education, and, or, supposedly laying claim to profiling parents, I don’t want anything to do with that,” Rose said.

Richard A. Mullaney, director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University, said the political battles similar to those that have erupted in Sarasota County are now taking place across the country, which has rattled his confidence in the future of America’s democracy.

“This phenomenon is much bigger than Florida,” Mullaney said. “And do I see anything pulling that back? I don’t know what on the horizon is going to do that.”

Indeed, here in Sarasota County, residents on both sides of the debate say the fight over the county’s political soul is really just getting started.

Bridget Ziegler is up for reelection in August and has aligned with two other conservative candidates to shift the county school board back to the right. Both they and the Democratic-leaning slate of candidates are expected to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns.

Christian Ziegler, meanwhile, also must stand for reelection this year if he wants to remain on the commission. But after liberal activists successfully campaigned for a referendum to move from at-large to single-member commission districts, Ziegler would have to run in a district that includes Democratic-leaning Sarasota city.

“Our message will be, ‘this man doesn’t give a damn about his constituents and he doesn’t represent all of the people,’” Schurr said of a potential Democratic campaign against Ziegler.

Ziegler counters he is still pondering whether he will seek reelection. But one way or another, he vows to remain a force in local, state and national politics.

“The reason [local government] is appealing to me, and the reason I love it, is you can take local action and literally shape the community that you live in,” Ziegler said. “And for me, that is a very appealing opportunity.”