A trio of “anti-woke” GOP candidates claimed victory in elections for the Sarasota school board this week, boosted by endorsements from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and support from a far-right group founded by members of the Proud Boys.
During celebrations on Tuesday night, two of the newly-elected board members were photographed at the official victory party with two of the Proud Boys, one of whom posed flashing the OK sign, a known white-power dog whistle.
Pictures posted on the Sarasota Watchdogs Facebook page shows soon-to-be board members Briget Ziegler and Robyn Marinelli celebrating with supporters. Among them are James Hoel and Nick Radovich, both known members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group that’s been designated as a terrorist group in several countries.
In one of the photos, Radovich is seen in the background flashing the OK sign, which the Anti-Defamation League added to its database of hate signs in 2019.
Ziegler and Marinelli did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment on their links to the Proud Boys, but Sarasota Watchdogs, which Hoel and Radovich co-founded, denied the sign was racist.
“We are simply grass-root volunteers that pushed for a change from the tyrannical liberal school board,” the group told VICE News in a Facebook message.
As a result of the clean sweep on Tuesday night, the school board in Sarasota has gone from having a 3-2 liberal majority to having a 4-1 conservative majority. And Sarasota is not an outlier: It’s one of five school boards in Florida that flipped to conservative control this week. Another of those was the Miami-Dade school board, which is now the nation's largest school district to be overseen by elected conservatives.
For years, far-right groups have been focusing on building grassroots support rather than looking at national organizing. This has been driven, in part, by figures like Steve Bannon—who hosted Ziegler on his War Room podcast on Thursday—and Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser who has spearheaded the “Stop the Steal” movement and is a Sarasota resident.
Central to that movement have been groups like the Proud Boys. In California, one Proud Boy member is currently running for a spot on his local school board, and in Washington state, two members of the Three Percenter militia have already secured seats on their school board.
“What will it take for Sarasota to recognize that hate groups like the Proud Boys have had a seat saved for them at our table? If citizens don’t start speaking up, extremist hate groups will be the ones in control,” Paulina Testerman, a Sarasota resident and co-founder of Support Our Schools, a nonprofit set up to combat the perceived threat to education from far-right groups, told VICE News.
“This is an organized plan of attack. After the 2020 election, the Proud Boys vowed to crawl back into the government when Trump lost and their plan was to start on the school board level. And here we are.”
In the hotly contested election for Sarasota school board, Hoel and Radovich, along with their wives, have played a key role in getting Ziegler, Marinelli, and fellow “anti-woke” candidate, Tim Enos, elected to the school board.
During the campaign, Marinelli skipped a meet-and-greet campaign event hosted by Hoel and his wife, Kathy Hoel because of criticism of the event. Radovich’s wife, Melissa Radovich, also courted controversy when she published an op-ed in the Herald Tribune in defense of the Proud Boys, headlined “Attacking Proud Boys does disservice to caring parents.” The paper printed a retraction of the column, following widespread criticism.
Hoel and Radovich have boosted the campaign via their Sarasota Watchdogs group, a nonprofit set up by the two couples in 2021 and previously known as “Unmask Freedom Unmask Florida.”
Two months before the school board election, the name of the group’s Facebook page was changed to Sarasota Watchdogs, according to the page’s history.
Over the last two months, the group, along with several others, began a campaign in support of the trio of candidates, dubbed ZEM by their supporters.
As well as securing the backing of the Proud Boys and DeSantis, the candidates were supported financially by rightwing activist groups like Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project PAC, which says it is “dedicated to electing school board members committed to abolishing CRT from the public school curriculum.”
Like many GOP candidates standing for school board positions this term, the ZEM candidates have focused their campaigns on hot-button GOP issues like critical race theory and anti-trans ideology.
The campaign for school board became increasingly toxic as the election approached. At one point, a mobile billboard drove around the district with a picture of candidate Lauren Kurnov alongside the words “BABY KILLER” and “LIAR.” Kurnov’s own son saw the billboard while shopping with his mother, the Herald Tribune reported.
(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
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