CMS race spurs unexpected alliances; Tempers flare in pizza parlor confrontation
A meeting of Charlotte’s conservative Moms for Liberty organization Wednesday night led to a confrontation in a parking lot with progressive school activist Pamela Grundy — highlighting tensions in the education community two months before the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board election since the pandemic.
Moms for Liberty said Grundy and a friend crashed their event, which included a discussion of how to close the achievement gap between white students and Black and brown students. Two people attending the meeting said Grundy then told Black patrons that people attending the Moms for Liberty meeting were racist and that they shouldn’t go inside.
Grundy said Thursday she regretted what she did. But she also said that Moms for Liberty is “a dangerous and un-American organization.”
Moms For Liberty has been critical of the school board over things like masking, virtual school and how CMS handles LGBTQ issues. It has reached out to Black leaders upset over low-test scores to work together.
That alliance has concerned some school board members and Grundy, who have questioned why Black leaders would be working with a mostly white conservative organization whose national leaders have been promoted on former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.
For Wednesday’s meeting, Moms for Liberty had invited Annette Albright, the education chair of the local NAACP chapter.
“It was a meeting about what do we need to promote CMS,” Albright said. “There was no racial overtones. In fact, one of the topics of conversation was how do we improve the achievement gap.”
Moms For Liberty chapter president Brooke Weiss has also met with the African American Faith Alliance to discuss mutual frustration with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, even if their issues don’t always overlap.
One target of Moms for Liberty’s frustration is Carol Sawyer, a white Democrat who represents the east Charlotte District 4 seat.
Sawyer is facing a challenge from Stephanie Sneed, former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, and first-time candidate Clara Witherspoon.
Social media feud
The District 4 election is considered one of the most competitive in November. In the days leading up to the confrontation at Pure Pizza, the two sides were engaging with each other on social media.
Weiss has used Twitter to urge people to vote for Sneed and oust Sawyer.
And earlier this week, Grundy, an education activist and a longtime friend of Sawyer’s, tweeted a challenge to Sneed.
She said Sneed should immediately release her list of campaign contributions to show that she hasn’t received money from Moms For Liberty.
The organization’s Florida founders have been promoted Bannon’s War Room podcast, talking about plans to “take over” local school boards by winning seats.
Grundy also wrote on Twitter that “Moms for Liberty is a far-right organization supported by far-right money. Yet money folks seem to downplay their ideology and play footsie with them because they oppose Sawyer4Schools. Strange bedfellows. What’s that about?”
Weiss said there is no national money behind her group.
“We’re a bunch of moms, and I mean, our chapter has a tiny, tiny bank account,” she said. “We couldn’t open one for a long time because we didn’t have the money for a minimum balance.”
Grundy now says tweeting that demand to Sneed was a mistake. She has since deleted it.
She said her tweet demanding Sneed disclose her donors “caused lots of anger in the Black community.” She said even though the message was hers, people blamed Sawyer. “So Carol is very mad at me, which I understand because it was a stupid thing to do.”
But Grundy said she still considers Moms For Liberty “dangerous” and “the fact that they oppose Carol says good things about Carol.”
A confrontation in the parking lot
Grundy said she did not tell Sawyer that she was going to crash Wednesday’s Moms For Liberty meeting.
Grundy says she just wanted to see how many people showed up. She counted about 30, enough to have reserved the restaurant for the meeting. She and her friend placed an order but left the restaurant after being asked to do so by Moms For Liberty members and restaurant staff.
Grundy and her friend, whom Grundy would not name, lingered in the parking lot.
Brooke Weiss’ husband, Brian, followed them out. At one point, a group of African Americans drove up and approached the restaurant. Brian Weiss says Grundy and her friend tried to stop them from entering.
“And they are screaming (to the patrons), ‘They are racist, don’t go in there.’ ” he said.
Albright, the NAACP official who was inside, says she heard something similar.
“And then you can hear these women, and they are telling people, ‘These people are racist, and don’t bring your Black family in here.’ And I’m Black, I’m the education chair for the NAACP.”
Grundy gives a different account:
“We did say to them, ‘Maybe tonight is not the night that you want to eat at Pure Pizza,” she said.
Grundy said she and her friend did not scream that the group inside was racist, but she did say that “there’s a group in there called Moms For Liberty. Google it.”
Brooke Weiss said her group has worked to include people of color, and the meetings with the African American Faith Alliance illustrate that effort.
“We’ve really both felt like it could be an example,” she said. “Things are so divisive in the country right now, and when people can come together over common issues, it’s inspiring.”
The next morning, Brooke Weiss posted on Facebook an account of the episode, describing Grundy and her friend as “cronies of Sawyer” and calling their behavior “dangerous and completely inappropriate.”
Grundy said that account misrepresents the events. But she said she also feels guilty about her own attempts to defend Sawyer and take on Moms For Liberty.
“I did it in a clumsy, ham-handed way that caused a lot of problems for Carol and I’m very sorry about that,” Grundy said.
Candidates don't want to comment
As for the candidates, both have tried to distance themselves from the controversy.
Sawyer quickly posted on Brooke Weiss’s Facebook page that she condemns what Grundy and her friend did.
“It has nothing to do with my campaign,” Sawyer said in an interview with WFAE. “I want voters to be looking at my work on the board.”
Sneed called the Twitter wars over Moms For Liberty a distraction.
“These discussions on Twitter have gotten so out of hand, and none of this is about student achievement,” she said. “Like it literally makes me sad.”
But the questions about Moms For Liberty and the African American Faith Alliance have an impact beyond tweets and pizza parlor drama.
The two groups came together months ago to demand change in CMS leadership and suggested that Dennis Williams, a former CMS administrator who heads the Faith Alliance, should have replaced then-Superintendent Earnest Winston.
At the board’s most recent public comment session, Brooke and Brian Weiss spoke and urged the board to restrict access to books with explicit sexual content and to require schools to notify parents if students want to use different pronouns. Both issues are part of the national Moms For Liberty agenda, and critics say it’s an effort to marginalize LGBTQ students and fan the culture wars.
The Reverend Jordan Boyd of the Faith Alliance was there too, condemning the school board for being slow to hire a permanent superintendent and act with more urgency to improve academics.
“You’re sitting on the status quo of failure,” he said. “The community deserves better.”
Also speaking was Gail Chauncey, who supported the school board. Chauncey called out Mecklenburg County commissioners for an approach that she said hinders the school board from helping students succeed.
“The BOCC has been disturbingly silent while the African American Faith Alliance collaborates with Moms For Liberty, a favorite of Steve Bannon and other racially and diversity-intolerant groups,” she said.
Chauncey, who is Black, said recently that she doesn’t buy the notion that working with the local Moms For Liberty chapter can be one way to help students of color.
“I’m very adamant about the fact that we are fighting a war against white nationalism,” she said.
November’s election will determine six of the nine seats on the CMS board. And that board will promptly move into decisions about a superintendent search. At a time when few are happy with the status quo, groups like Moms For Liberty and the African American Faith Alliance will likely keep trying to find the balance that gets their voices heard, separately or together.