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Jill Sessions’ bid to join the Polk County School Board is backed by a national conservative political action committee that funded a video mentioning her and three other Polk County School Board candidates in August ahead of the primary, according to an article in The Daily Caller.
Despite the national support to push education policy locally, Sessions, a candidate for District 7, has not visited a Polk County public school in 2022, according to records on file with the school district. She is also not an approved volunteer with the school district and does not serve on any school district committee or board.
And, records show, she sold her home in School District 5 and moved to a mobile home in School District 7 in May when she filed to run for office. District 5 is represented by longtime School Board member Kay Fields and includes central and northwest Lakeland. District 7 is currently represented by Lisa Miller and includes northeast Lakeland and north Polk County to U.S. 27.
Sessions did not respond to a voicemail or an email asking for comment on several questions for this article.
A video posted on Aug. 10 on the YouTube channel of The American Principles Project urges people to vote for Sessions, along with three other conservative Polk County School Board candidates the video labels as backed by “the Parents’ Caucus.”
In the video, a voice intones over dramatic music: “Radical Democrats want to indoctrinate our kids. They’re teaching trans ideology and anti-American critical race theory to our children. They even think parents shouldn’t have a say in their child’s education. Only the Parents’ Caucus is fighting back. Terry Clark, Jill Sessions, Justin Sharpless and Rick Nolte will protect parents’ rights. Say no to critical race theory. Say no to sexualizing our children. Vote for the Parents’ Caucus on August 23 for Polk County School Board.”
Images include President Joe Biden with what subtly looks like a red target – with a D in the center – a transvestite reading a book to children (it’s unclear if the event is taking place in Polk County or even Florida), someone in a crowd (it’s unclear where or who the people are) burning an American flag, and Sessions, Sharpless and Nolte all with American flags billowing behind them.
Clark lost his bid, while Nolte and Sharpless won. Sessions garnered 37.45% of the 99,732 votes cast, while incumbent Lisa Miller won 42.43%, and Dell Quary got 20.12%. Sessions and Miller are now in a runoff, which will be decided in the general election on Nov. 8.
Kyle Kennedy, a spokesman for Polk County Public Schools, said drag queens have never read to children in PCPS schools, as depicted in the video. Superintendent Frederick Heid has repeatedly said that critical race theory is a college-level course not taught in Polk County Public Schools. He has decided to continue using an opt-out policy for parents to block their children from reading any library materials they find objectionable, including 16 books a local conservative group, County Citizens Defending Freedom, wanted permanently removed.
CCDF members backed Sessions and the other candidates in the video.
The 16 books were pulled from PCPS library shelves in late January while two committees reviewed them in public meetings throughout the spring. According to her Facebook page, Sessions attended several book review committee meetings in which members determined all 16 books should be returned to library shelves at age-appropriate levels. Heid backed away from a proposed opt-in process, which would have kept the books behind librarian’s counters and made available to students only with parental permission. That decision angered Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Sessions’ national support is part of a tangled nest of political action committees and non-profits that appear to be orchestrating conservative campaigns across the country. The $40,000 spent on the political video is actually tiny in comparison to the funds spent in other races.
A Sept. 19 Daily Caller article titled “National Groups Backing Local School Board Candidates Against Radical Gender, Race Teachings,” states “The American Principles Project (APP), a national pro-parents’ rights organization that directly engages in campaigns and elections, has entered the Polk County, Florida, school board election by providing four local candidates with $40,000 for ad campaigns.”
The online news outlet Politico also wrote about dark money influencing local races.
“The money, attack ads and mobilization effort going into school board races — from some groups with no geographic ties to local candidates — underscore how education has become one of the prime issues conservatives are increasingly directing their resources in the 2022 election cycle and beyond,” the Politico article states. “While many parents were energized to get more involved in their child’s education during the pandemic, how students are taught about race and sexuality is now galvanizing conservatives to become more involved in school boards, which can have a significant influence shaping curriculum in some states.”
Both the Politico article and the Daily Caller article were published on the same day.
APP spokesman Paul Dupont told the Daily Caller that APP supported the “Parents Caucus” slate of candidates in the Polk County School Board elections, including Sessions, Clark, Nolte, and Sharpless.
The $40,000 the Daily Caller said APP spent to “run digital ads and send out text messages ahead of the election” was a larger part of what Dupont called APP’s efforts to “elevate education issues such as parental rights and sexually explicit content in schools in this year’s midterms.” The article does not discuss any other school board race in the country.
According to progressive-leaning sourcewatch.org, The Daily Caller is a “conservative/Republican news spin organization” founded in 2010 by conservative Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel to “challenge mainstream and other liberal news-media outlets.”
While The Daily Caller is a for-profit news outlet, it is connected to a non-profit foundation, which “appears to violate the spirit of a federal law governing nonprofits,” Linda Sugin, a law professor at Fordham University, told The Washinton Post in 2017.
According to sourcewatch.org, The Daily Caller News Foundation receives its top funding from the Koch Family Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute. The New Yorker describes Charles Koch and his late brother David Koch as “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.” Charles Koch is one of the 20 richest people in the world. The New York Times gives the Koch brothers credit for reshaping American politics by funding numerous right-wing movements, think tanks, and institutions. Their contributions to The Daily Caller include:
- Charles Koch Foundation: $3,429,493 (2012-2018)
- Koch Family Foundations: $2,683,243 (2012-2017)
- Charles Koch Institute: $50,200 (2015-2017)
The veracity of some of The Daily Caller’s articles has also come into question, including one written by an organizer of the white supremacist Charlottesville march that led to the death of one counter-protestor in 2017.
Sharpless said he was unaware of his inclusion in the video until people began sending him the link to it.
“I was never contacted by the American Principles Project PAC,” Sharpless said. “I have no idea who they are.”
Sharpless also distanced himself from CCDF during his race, including removing tags of him from their Facebook posts.
According to documents with the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C., which oversees all federal-level candidates’ campaigns, political action committees, along with donors and expenditures, the American Principles Project PAC has received nearly $4 million in contributions since Decemeber 2020. That includes $559,000 funneled from its parent company, The American Principles Project.
The APP PAC’s treasurer is listed as David R. Langdon, with an address on Shrilington Road in Arlington, Va.
In that same period, Restoration PAC, based in Illinois, has given American Principles Project PAC nearly $3.2 million.
Restoration PAC has collected $14.2 million and spent $15.7 million in the last two years, records show. One of its email contacts is the same as American Principals Project: email@example.com.
According to a 2015 article by the Center for Public Integrity, David “Langdon is a critical behind-the-scenes player among the small army of lawyers working to keep secret the origins of millions of dollars coursing through the American political system … Langdon is also an unswerving legal warrior for conservative, often Christian, nonprofit organizations that together spend millions more to influence public policy and wield great influence among evangelical voters.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization focused on inequality in the U.S. It does not accept advertising or charge people to read its work.
Langdon, who lives in Ohio, authored an Ohio constitutional amendment defining marriage “as between a man and a woman,” which Ohio voters passed in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015.
The article states that Langdon’s West Chester, Ohio, law office “is a home base for nonprofits and super PACs that pour millions of dollars into elections.”
Between 2010 and 2015, at least 11 groups connected to Langdon or his firm collectively spent at least $22 million on federal and state elections and ballot initiatives around the country, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of records.
American Principles Project Playbook
APP’s Dupont, an alumnus of various conservative think tanks, co-authored the 2019 APP report “Family First: Reclaiming the GOP’s Forgotten Constituency.”
In the paper, Dupont lays out a playbook for conservative politics after polling 5,285 Americans between the ages of 20 and 65. They were asked how they voted in the 2016 and 2018 elections and also about their faith in the value of the free market and their views on abortion and marriage.
“From their answers, we discovered one crucial detail about the electorate which has been almost entirely overlooked in recent political discussion: one of the strongest indicators of holding conservative views and supporting GOP candidates — across race, gender, and income level — was being married and/ or coming from an intact family. In other words, married and family-oriented voters are a crucial, and likely the most crucial, component of the GOP coalition,” Dupont and his co-authors wrote. “The Republican Party’s future is wholly dependent on a renewal of the American family, and it is on this goal that conservative leaders should be fully focused moving forward.”
The report laid out the framework for what is now happening in American politics, urging politicians to focus their messages on:
- Parental rights
- Anti-commercial surrogacy of babies
- Sound money, specifically the re-monetization of gold.
- Pro-family tax policy
- Paid family leave
“The ongoing fight over parental rights embodies the core difference between progressive and conservative ideology: whether the family is prior to government, or subject to it,” the report states. “Parents have a natural right and corresponding responsibility to direct the care and upbringing of their children. However, the threats to this fundamental right are myriad and growing most prominent in education and healthcare, as many progressive institutions and activists have decided they know better than parents how to raise their children,” Dupont wrote. “Indeed, the left is actively weaponizing the state and the courts in many areas to step between parents and their children in order to ‘properly educate’ children in socially liberal orthodoxy.”
Dupont called for conservatives to “oppose at all levels of government any attempts to add ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ to existing law, which is the mechanism by which the left is eroding any meaningful distinctions between men and women, including in relation to access to private spaces and even women’s sports teams. These laws are an accelerated bypass of parental rights.”
He also called projects like Common Core State Standards a failed educational theory that the left has imposed on all schools. The initiative, an attempt to have each state test students with the same standards, had been talked about for years at the federal level, including during Republican administrations, but came into prominence during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Dupont said Washington wound up “creating a mess of dumbed-down curriculum across the public school system. Moreover, Republicans have long been divided on the issue, likely explaining at least in part why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made relatively little progress in resolving this problem since her appointment in 2017.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated Common Core and has shifted testing away from a high-pressure annual event to still-stressful periodic checks on student progress.
Finally, Dupont said the Federal Trade Commission should require internet services providers to “give all households by default an ‘opt-in’ option to receive obscene content, as opposed to merely allowing them to voluntarily ‘opt-out.’
While Sessions attended evening meetings of the book review committees, PCPS district records show she has not been on any district campus nor has she served on any committee or advisory board this calendar year.
“We checked our Raptor system, which is where visitors log in when visiting our schools. We could find no record of Jill Sessions visiting any of our schools dating back to January 1st,” PCPS records liason Teresa Griffin wrote in an email to LkldNow. “We checked both Robin (her legal first name) Sessions and Jill Sessions and could not find record of her being an approved volunteer with the district. We also checked the District Advisory Council list and she is not a member.”
Sessions has also not attended in person the last several School Board meetings, although she could have been watching online. She holds a fulltime job as the solid waste manager for Plant City, which she says she will leave if she is elected in November.
Sessions has refused to talk with LkldNow or The Ledger. She did not answer questions for this article.
Sharpless has served for several years on the PCPS redistricting committee.
In contrast, Miller, Sessions’ opponent in the runoff, has worked for at least 15 years advocating for the parents of special education students, including being appointed by the governor to several boards. According to PCPS records, she has served on at least a dozen state and county education and planning organizations and has held leadership positions with the Florida Developmental Disability Council and the Florida School Boards Association.
LkldNow also requested Miller’s calendar, which shows multiple meetings each week that deal with School Board issues. In addition to all of those, Miller has visited at least 32 schools and graduations this year – some schools more than once.
Miller, who is a longtime non-party affiliate and married to a Republican, said she thinks people care that “my opponent is completely inexperienced, wholly unfamiliar with Polk County Public Schools, and incapable of overseeing $2.2 billion worth of programs she doesn’t know about.
“Polk taxpayers will care that there is a person with zero knowledge of our school district who is attempting to buy a seat with out-of-state PAC money,” Miller said. “She has little to no local support. She is running a campaign full of lies and fear funded by national PACs.”
Miller has raised more than $60,500 and has spent $47,000.
Sessions has collected $28,300 in contributions and spent $26,000.
Republicans throughout the county received an anonymous text message in late June, falsely claiming that Miller and her husband, Bob, were “potentially under criminal investigation.”
Instead, the text is now under investigation.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia both said their agencies are not investigating the couple, who owns a real estate company, MillShire Realty. They have two children, Evie, 11, and Michael, 20, who is profoundly autistic.
“They are not under criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and have not been and that’s a vicious, ugly, political, campaign-induced lie,” Judd said at the time. “Somebody must be concerned she’s ahead in the campaign.”
Miller said the State Attorney’s Office is investigating the text message as a potential violation of campaign laws because it was sent anonymously. Miller shared a text message with LkldNow from the State Attorney’s Office, saying the investigation into the source of the false text was ongoing, they had subpoenaed people, and are conducting interviews.
Jacob Orr, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said, “No investigation of the Millers exists. We are not investigating the Millers.”
Sessions has three adult children. Her expenditures include $7,500 on a campaign advisor, James Dunn, who was convicted of federal felony fraud charges for submitting false claims for $300,000 to the federal government, claiming to be providing vocational training to veterans and people with disabilities that he never gave.
When asked if he would hire a campaign consultant convicted of felony fraud like Dunn, Sheriff Judd, who has run five successful campaigns, said, “Absolutely no, never ever, under any circumstance. It obviously is going to cause the voters to question the candidates’ decision-making ability.”
Sessions is endorsed by the Republican Party of Polk County, Winter Haven 9-12 Project, and The 1776 Project PAC. She is supported by CCDF, which posted on May 10, “On August 23 vote for GOP endorsed Better Leaders 4 Better Schools candidates Terry Clark, Pam Luce, Jill Sessions and Justin Sharpless.
Miller is endorsed by Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber), East Polk Association of Realtors, Lakeland Association of Realtors, West Central Florida Labor Council AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Polk Education Association teachers’ union, the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Polk County Builders Association.
The election is Nov. 8. Voter registration ends Oct. 11. Requests for mail-in ballots ends Oct. 29 and in-person early voting starts Oct. 24 and ends Nov. 5.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-272-9250.
SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: email@example.com
Hoping Lisa Miller is returned to office for her long standing service to Polk County children and families with one agenda, to serve their best interest. That is refreshing and needed in a time when dark money and controlled candidates threaten the most local of races, and perhaps the most important—-our local school board who makes decisions affecting our children. My vote goes to Lisa Miller for her proven leadership.
Lisa Miller is the only choice for her proven experience and record of unfailing advocacy for our children.
Lisa Miller is the best candidate for the good of Polk County Schools and, most importantly, the children. Sessions, for so many reasons, including those mentioned above, is not.
Oh that sounds so ominous, “dark money”. I consider PEA money the darkest money. Lisa is PEA’s candidate. The teacher’s union, PEA, is the epitome of self-interests and darkness. So weak. Lisa Miller is the dark deal maker behind closed doors to sell out our children to leftist perverts. Who also takes PEA money. Who is a favorite tool of PEA. Even though Lkldnow obviously hates conservatives, at least you had the decency to expose Lisa Miller as one of the dark four that approached school superintendent Heid behind Polk County parents’ backs to get him to reverse his direction on child porn being accessible in our public schools. For that betrayal of trust alone this repugnant incumbent needs to be sent her pink slip in November.
This is such a biased article. It could have been written by Lisa Miller. Miller needs to go. She obviously only cares about kids with disabilities and special needs. Anyone that will let garbage books in school libraries needs to be voted out.
Barry Friedman stated in his article on May 23, 2022 about the hiring of Kimberly Moore; We were drawn to the same kind of stories – ones that attempt to connect reader to their community by explaining Important issues and introducing reader to people who make things happen. He neglected to state it would be unbiased journalism. Kimberly’s article would be best listed under political opinion,
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