For Tom Edwards, anger at Christian and Bridget Ziegler isn’t a new emotion.
The only Democrat on the Sarasota County School Board, he has long been a political adversary. Shortly after Christian Ziegler became state Chair of the Republican Party of Florida, he called Edwards a “phony, radical, and self-admitted WOKE Liberal Activist School Board,” and said unseating him in 2024 would be a top party priority.
As for Bridget Ziegler, Edwards has sat alongside the conservative on the School Board his entire time in office, two years when he was part of a majority and the last year when he was often on the losing side of 4-1 votes.
It’s no shock, then, that Edwards became the first member of the School Board to call for Bridget Ziegler’s resignation amid her husband’s high-profile sex scandal. He told the Herald-Tribune on Tuesday that the Zieglers “cannot any longer be near children or public policy.”
In a lengthy conversation with Florida Politics, he said tawdry details of Bridget Ziegler’s sex life are only a part of the problem. News broke last week that Christian Ziegler for months has been under active criminal investigation after a Sarasota woman accused him of rape. Documents made public in the investigation show both Zieglers admitted to a prior consensual sexual encounter with the woman.
Christian Ziegler admitted to another sexual encounter with the woman in October — the one at issue in the criminal complaint — but said it was consensual. Bridget Ziegler was not present for that incident and has not been accused of a crime.
For Edwards, this feels like the latest in a long string of scandals. Most of those weren’t salacious, but in Edwards’ eyes they represented greater threats to the public school system.
Sure, he felt angry when Bridget Ziegler allowed homophobic activists to use slurs and call Edwards, a gay man, a “groomer” during public comments at meetings she chaired. That prompted him to walk out of a meeting in March.
But he remains angry that a newly elected conservative majority decided its first move would be pushing out Superintendent of Schools Brennan Asplen — “for no reason,” by Edwards’ assessment.
Ziegler also advocated — unsuccessfully — for the district to hire an education consulting company with ties to Hillsdale College.
“The last year was a wasted year,” Edwards said. “At our last School Board meeting, I actually said we need to put all of that behind us, get rid of the distractions and deal with the business at hand.”
Within days, the sex scandal made headlines.
On Wednesday, School Board member Karen Rose, a conservative and Bridget Ziegler’s longest-serving ally on the board, also called for Ziegler’s resignation. She will present a resolution at the next School Board meeting on Dec. 12.
Ziegler has made no comments publicly since the scandal broke, but she resigned from the staff of the conservative Leadership Institute.
Edwards believes the entire community, across the political spectrum, has grown weary of constant disruptions and angry rhetoric dominating Board meetings. He is also frustrated about that friction drowning out any conversation about reversing the COVID-19 slide in schools, establishing design academies on campuses, or any number of other governance issues.
“My observation, from watching Bridget on the dais and during her campaign, is that every action, every comment, has a political motive. Every one,” he said. “The Zieglers are political climbers. Whether that’s through building their finances or positions of power or all of it, they really make no bones about it. They were happy to be known as a political power couple. They enjoyed that mantra.”
Edwards said many Republicans, including conservative ones, have frequently stopped him in the last year to say they appreciate his focus on governance. It’s why Edwards feels he’s in a good position for re-election. But he says the Zieglers’ grandstanding proved effective in its own way.
“It has paid off financially and politically. They have always doubled down,” he said. “Even when they fired the Superintendent and people were beyond disappointed and angry, they doubled down.”
He sees the political actions as part of a larger agenda, and points to legislation passed this year allowing the biggest expansion of school vouchers in Florida history. “The real game is HB 1,” Edwards said, suggesting many players will benefit financially from directing more tax dollars into private schools.
The new scandal, of course, has exposed a level of hypocrisy, particularly on LGBTQ issues. Bridget Ziegler stood alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis at a signing ceremony for legislation critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, apparently even as she dabbled in threesomes with another woman.
“But this doesn’t play out on a bigger stage for Bridget Ziegler,” Edwards said.
“Plenty of people on both sides of the aisle have gay children, or have had to have abortions. The offensiveness to trans children, to parents of trans children, the harm to the self-esteem of LGBTQ students and parents, to Black families who have been told Black history needs to be cleaned up so White children are not uncomfortable, the harm to the self-esteem of those children who will carry those scars to early teenage years and adulthood, is immeasurable.
“The Zieglers knew it and didn’t care.”