On its surface, the event is a rally to support a faction of parents who've been advocating fervently for an end to a mask mandate in Phoenix’s Washington Elementary School District. The district, which serves parts of north-central Phoenix and east Glendale, is the largest elementary school district in the state.
But over the last week, the conflict has ballooned from typical school board meeting strife into a political circus. In addition to Lake and Townsend, headlining speakers include Arizona GOP chair Kelli Ward, Republican congressional candidate Josh Barnett, and former Arizona lawmaker (and probable Capitol rioter) Anthony Kern — all of whom will converge Friday afternoon in the Sweetwater Elementary School parking lot.
How did a relatively small group — several dozen parents, based on their Telegram channel membership — manage to attract such heavyweight speakers?
That's not fully clear, but it’s noteworthy that the event has the backing of EZAZ.org, a self-proclaimed “grassroots freedom alliance” led by former Phoenix mayoral candidate Merissa Hamilton, who has ties to various prominent Republican officials, despite her own unsuccessful political campaigns. The group lists the Friday rally as one of its own.
Hamilton and her organization, a branch of the “Strong Communities Action Foundation,” have been leading the charge locally to get parents to agitate in school boards around Maricopa County, supposedly in order to “save Arizona.” It’s a tactic that conservative groups have begun adopting nationwide — not just to push against "critical race theory" or mask requirements, but to rile up voters for the midterms. This district drama-turned-campaign rally appears to be just another example.
A faction of parents in the Washington Elementary School District has certainly become zealous about the mask issue. The trouble began at the end of September, when a divided school board voted to implement a mask mandate, which allows for limited medical and religious exemptions. At a subsequent school board meeting, one parent after another aired their concerns: “This is not about health, it’s about compliance,” one said. “This mask mandate is an assault,” said another, calling the masks “psychologically and physiologically damaging.” (The CDC continues to recommend indoor masking for all K-12 students.)
An email to the group of parents organizing the rally went unanswered; so did inquiries New Times sent to Kari Lake, Kelly Townsend, and Kelli Ward.
While the parents who are organizing the rally are thrilled that figures like Lake and Townsend are attending, other parents in the district have some safety concerns about an anti-mask rally featuring far-right politicians being held at their children's elementary school.
Dawn Woodlock, who has two children in the district, is one. She is “disgusted” by the rally, she tells New Times.
“If you are brave enough to run for and sit on a school board, you need to be brave enough to stand up for our kids,” she said, adding that the district should take action to block the event from the campus, given that some of the attendees have ties to "white-nationalist extremist groups."
Woodlock also said she was frustrated by the initial support that the district's governing board president, Bill Adams, had given the rally. Originally, Adams had said he was planning on attending. But when New Times contacted Adams Thursday afternoon, he said he had changed his mind. The event had become "more of a political rally," he explained.
Furthermore, the rally does not yet appear to have any formal approval from the district. Pam Horton, a district spokesperson, wrote in an email to New Times that the district had requested that the group fill out a request form in order to host the event at the school, she said. As of Thursday afternoon, she said, the group had not done so.
"This is not a district-sponsored event," she added.