October 30, 2023

Moms for Liberty unexpectedly finds itself at the center of a heated Carmel mayoral race

Signs for the Carmel mayoral race between Democrat Miles Nelson and Republican Sue Finkam are among the display for signs outside an early voting site at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. - Michael Conroy / AP

Signs for the Carmel mayoral race between Democrat Miles Nelson and Republican Sue Finkam are among the display for signs outside an early voting site at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023.

Michael Conroy / AP
By Isabella Volmert

CARMEL — An Indiana Moms for Liberty chapter has followed the conservative group's national playbook, challenging diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in school districts as part of its "parental rights" mission. But the chapter's aims and use of a quote from Adolf Hitler in its inaugural newsletter unexpectedly spilled over this fall into a mayor's race previously defined by local development.

The polarizing nature of Moms for Liberty, which has gained name recognition for its push to pack school boards with its endorsements, has spurred some left-leaning candidates to capitalize on opposition to the group and stir voters against their conservative opponents.

In Carmel, Indiana, the Democratic candidate for mayor has repeatedly used the group when attacking his opponent, even though the mayor's office has no administrative power over school districts, and the local chapter has publicly remained silent on the race outside of its traditional battleground.

Democratic candidate and Carmel city councilman Miles Nelson asked his opponent on stage earlier this month to denounce the local Moms for Liberty chapter.

Fellow city councilwoman and Republican Sue Finkam did not respond and later accused Nelson of trying to use national politics to inflame the race to lead the city of nearly 102,000 people located about 15 miles (24.1 kilometers) north of downtown Indianapolis.

The Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty told The Associated Press it can only endorse candidates for school board, but also accused Nelson of campaigning on "silencing parents."

Florida-based nonprofit Moms for Liberty has challenged curriculum and books featuring instruction on systemic racism and LGBTQ+ topics in K-12 education. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremism around the U.S., classified Moms for Liberty as an "anti-government extremist group" earlier this year.

Since its inception in 2021 amid opposition to schools' COVID-19 mandates, the organization has swiftly gained sway within Republican politics. Five GOP candidates spoke at the Moms for Liberty annual summit in Philadelphia this summer.

Wealthy, suburban Hamilton County fits the model of areas where Moms for Liberty has sought to influence school policies, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. The city of Carmel itself went for Joe Biden in 2020 after backing Donald Trump in 2016. Trump held on to the broader county in 2020, though by a narrower margin compared to 2016, according to an Indianapolis Star analysis.
The local chapter is relatively new, but its June newsletter attracted wide condemnation after quoting Hitler on its front cover. The chapter apologized shortly after and edited the newsletter.
Nelson, who described himself as a "man of devout Jewish faith" spoke out against the group on social media at the time. As a candidate for mayor, he called on Finkam to do the same.

During the Oct. 2 debate, Nelson directly asked Finkam to "denounce Moms for Liberty once and for all."

Finkam did not reply. Her silence was met by cries from the crowd.

Finkam later said on social media that she was followed, filmed and called a "Nazi" and a "racist" after the debate. She insisted she would not "bend to my opponent's theatrics."

Kory Wood, senior adviser for Finkam's campaign, said in a written statement that she has denounced the use of the quote multiple times. Finkam condemned its use in June while speaking at the Carmel Pride event, according to reporting by the Indianapolis Star.

"Her opponent is unqualified to lead our city, and is repeatedly asking about Moms for Liberty to take voters' focus off his incompetence," Wood said. "Sue respects our resident's ability to elect a school board to lead school operations and curriculum."

Paige Miller, chair of the Moms for Liberty Hamilton County Chapter, said in a written statement that Nelson has made opposing the group "a platform for his campaign."

"The oath of office for Mayor requires the elected official to promise to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America," Miller wrote. "We expect our elected leaders to uphold this integral part of office which guarantees citizens freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as stated in the Constitution."

Nelson said his continued opposition of Moms for Liberty is about supporting teachers and the school district. The mayor's office doesn't oversee schools, but local education is essential to drawing business and new residents to growing Hamilton County, Nelson said.

"What stuck was this Moms for Liberty thing," Nelson said about the debate. "Because she was silent and it's a hate group."

Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said while Moms for Liberty has rallied a base to its cause, the group also has generated staunch opposition. Affiliation with Moms for Liberty can hurt some candidates, as in the Carmel race.

"It's a clear example of how opposition to Moms for Liberty can galvanize people to vote against conservative candidates," Valant said.

On the other hand, Valant said, a politician distancing themselves from the group may alienate its local membership and supporters, even if the candidate is not running for school board.

Diane Shaw, 38, said her family moved to Carmel from a Chicago suburb in 2021. She and her husband have two children, 9 and 6 years old, and were drawn to the school district and lower cost of living in the area.

Shaw, a former teacher, said she is concerned about the Moms for Liberty chapter's influence in the county.

Her husband David Shaw, 41, said he considers Finkam's silence as "alluding to support" for the group he feels drives divisive, hateful rhetoric.

"That, to me, just makes it a nonstarter," David Shaw said. "I'll never not vote and so it just means that Nelson is my candidate of choice."

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