Florida sex scandal tarnishes GOP power couple and party’s credibility

By Lori Rozsa, The Washington Post, Dec 16, 2023.

Florida GOP chairman Christian Ziegler and Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board, have their jobs and reputations on the line because of an admitted three-way sexual encounter and a rape allegation being investigated by police.

As 2023 began, it looked as though Christian and Bridget Ziegler had a golden year ahead. And it was — for 11 months.

He was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, its most important position and one that was particularly crucial given that the two leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination were Florida men. He would be in charge of fundraising and spending millions of dollars for party candidates going into 2024.

She was starting her third and final term on the Sarasota County School Board, having been reelected while running on a slate of “anti-woke” policies she had adopted as co-founder of Moms for Liberty. She was also six months into another job: training conservative parents and others around the country to run for school board races, a key goal of the Virginia-based Leadership Institute, which hired her to help “stop the left’s terrible indoctrination.”

The couple’s income was on the rise and their political influence was spreading well beyond state lines.

Then on Nov. 30, the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability published a Sarasota police search warrant detailing allegations that Christian Ziegler had raped a woman with whom he and his wife had previously had a three-way sexual encounter. According to the affidavit, Ziegler told detectives that his separate encounter with the woman in early October was consensual and that he had recorded it.

Calls for him to step down as state GOP chair sounded almost immediately and by Friday were a chorus of Republican outrage that included Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s U.S. senators, prominent state legislators and other party members. With Ziegler refusing to resign — to the consternation of allies and opponents — the party will meet in Orlando on Sunday to try to force him out.

Though she is not part of the ongoing criminal investigation, Bridget Ziegler has also faced calls to give up her seat on both the school board and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, which governs the property around Disney World. On Tuesday, she weathered a heated school board meeting at which dozens of residents accused her of hypocrisy and her colleagues voted to ask her to quit.

No matter what happens from here, political analyst Susan MacManus says the Florida GOP has taken a reputational hit.

“The bottom line is that it’s very difficult for you making the argument that you’re all about traditional family values when there’s that sort of sexual accusation,” said MacManus, a retired University of South Florida political science professor. “And while it’s true that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty, the admission of participation in a threesome was all a lot of people needed to hear.”

When Christian Ziegler met his wife a decade ago, their lives were on very different tracks. He was a Florida transplant — raised outside of Atlanta by his mother — who had jumped right into state Republican politics after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and criminology from Florida State University.

He campaigned in 2006 for Vern Buchanan, who was elected to Congress and hired him as a legislative assistant. In 2012, Ziegler was elected to a position on the party’s state committee.

In 2016, he founded a digital marketing company in Sarasota called MicroTargetedMedia. Two years later, as the GOP began to overtake Democrats in voter registration, he won a seat on the Sarasota County Commission.

Bridget also was a transplant, who followed her parents from Illinois to Miami and attended Florida International University for several years. When they moved to Sarasota, she again followed them and got a job at an insurance company.

She has talked about her life with her husband on various podcasts. From the time they met, she recounted on Joyful Warriors, a Moms for Liberty podcast episode released in October, his political aspirations were no surprise.

“One of our first dates, no kidding, was [a Republican Executive Committee] meeting,” she said, explaining that he had to stop in to get the attendance. “It was kind of a smart idea, because it was all these lovely retired older ladies who were loving Christian, like, ‘Oh, he’s so cute.’”

On a Bloomberg podcast, one of the many on which she promoted her training for the Leadership Institute, she described the whirlwind that 2014 was for them as a young couple. “We got married, had a baby, bought a house, and then I ran for [school board] office all like in one year, all in a span of 12 months,” she said. “I was 31 at the time. It was a wild year.”

She would often share how she went from being relatively apolitical to “jumping off the ledge” and running for office: She was on the floor of their home playing with the baby when Christian came home from work.

“Literally the first thing he said was … there’s a vacancy on the school board and you should run,” Ziegler said. “I was like, what? You’re insane.”

Yet after thinking it over for “24 to 48 hours,” she said yes, deciding that she wanted to “be able to influence that kind of learning environment” for their child.

And she wasn’t dissuaded when her father warned her that she would be opening herself up to public scrutiny. “Nah, it’ll be fine,” she replied.

In the end, then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the vacant seat instead of leaving it open for several months. By her own admission, she was an unpopular outsider. That fall and again four years later, she barely won election on her own.

But 2018 was also when DeSantis won the governor’s race. Soon after, Bridget Ziegler and DeSantis and other conservative policymakers in Florida began a push for parental rights in schools that resulted in sweeping changes to education in the state. Their efforts accelerated during the pandemic, which is when she joined two other parents to found Moms for Liberty.

Together they helped to craft the legislation that eventually became the “Parental Rights in Education” law. Commonly known as “don’t say gay,” it prohibits discussion of gender issues in schools. DeSantis signed the bill last year, with Bridget Ziegler standing on stage behind him, along with other supporters.

A few months later, the governor took the unusual step of endorsing candidates for school board races — which the state constitution requires to be nonpartisan. At the top of his list: Bridget Ziegler.

“You should have her in every county,” DeSantis declared.

She breezed to victory in 2022, winning by more than 12 points. As a sign of her influence, she was asked last fall to host Casey DeSantis for a “Mamas for DeSantis” rally in Sarasota. She pulled in 300 supporters and donors from five counties.

With the state becoming ever redder — “The work is not done until there are no more Democrats in Florida,” Christian Ziegler posted online — the couple made a powerful team. She was arguably more prominent, especially nationally, for her efforts to restrict which books and subjects can be taught in schools as well as for her attacks on the LGBTQ community.

“They used the LGBTQ, trans in specific, or marginalized populations as they’ll call it, to get into people’s psyche, and pull at their emotional heartstrings, to create this division and this narrative [that] school is safe, home is dangerous,” she said on the Daily Signal podcast, referring to policies preventing school staff from identifying LGBTQ youth to their families.

At the same time, she was encouraged by what she saw around the country during her training sessions for people who wanted to run for school boards — even in “communist California,” where she said “people are fighting with everything they’ve got.”

Her husband echoed her “warrior cry,” saying on his LinkedIn page that he’s about “Promoting The Right and battling The Left in order to leave a better World for my 3 daughters.”

Much, if not all, of their work is now on the line because of the rape allegation and admission of a three-way sexual encounter.

Bridget Ziegler, 41, is no longer affiliated with the Leadership Institute, though it is unclear whether she resigned or was asked to leave. Her future on the Sarasota County School Board, a position that pays $34,000 a year, depends on DeSantis. He is the only one who can remove her, and he hasn’t indicated publicly whether he is considering doing so.

Christian Ziegler, 40, could be fired by Sunday night from his $120,000-a-year job as GOP chairman. That would leave him with his business, which helps candidates run political campaigns.

He seems ready to go out fighting. In an email to the party membership two days after news broke of the police investigation, he was defiant.

“We have a country to save,” he said, “and I am not going to let false allegations of a crime put that mission on the bench as I wait for this process to wrap up.”

He included Bridget in his message: “My family is rock solid. My wife is behind me 150%”

 

 Image Credits: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP; Steve Nesius/Reuters

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