How a far-right, Christian cellphone company ‘took over’ four Texas school boards

Patriot Mobile markets itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider.” Now the Trump-aligned company is on a mission to win control of Texas school boards.

Karl Meek went to a Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District board of trustees meeting Monday wearing a T-shirt with the district’s name, GCISD, crossed out and replaced with the words “Patriot Mobile Action ISD” to protest the political action committee’s influence over the school system.Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

DALLAS — A little more than a year after former Trump adviser Steve Bannon declared that conservatives needed to win seats on local school boards to “save the nation,” he used his conspiracy theory-fueled TV program to spotlight Patriot Mobile, a Texas-based cellphone company that had answered his call to action.

“The school boards are the key that picks the lock,” Bannon said during an interview with Patriot Mobile’s president, Glenn Story, from the floor of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Dallas on Aug. 6. “Tell us about what you did.”

Story turned to the camera and said, “We went out and found 11 candidates last cycle and we supported them, and we won every seat. We took over four school boards.”

“Eleven seats on school boards, took over four!” Bannon shouted as a crowd of CPAC attendees erupted in applause.

It was a moment of celebration for an upstart company whose leaders say they are on a mission from God to restore conservative Christian values at all levels of government — especially in public schools. To carry out that calling, the Grapevine-based company this year created a political action committee, Patriot Mobile Action, and gave it more than $600,000 to spend on nonpartisan school board races in the Fort Worth suburbs.

This spring, the PAC blanketed the communities of Southlake, Keller, Grapevine and Mansfield with thousands of political mailers warning that sitting school board members were endangering students with critical race theory and other “woke” ideologies. Patriot Mobile presented its candidates as patriots who would “keep political agendas out of the classroom.”

Patriot Mobile-backed members of the GCISD board of trustees helped usher through a sweeping 36-page policy revision Monday touching on virtually every aspect of the culture wars over race, gender and sexuality that have dominated school politics since last year.Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

Their candidates won every race, and nearly four months later, those Patriot Mobile-backed school boards have begun to deliver results.

The Keller Independent School District made national headlines this month after the school board passed a new policy that led the district to abruptly pull more than 40 previously challenged library books off shelves for further review, including a graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” as well as several LGBTQ-themed novels. 

In the neighboring city of Southlake, Patriot Mobile donated framed posters that read “In God We Trust” to the Carroll Independent School District during a special presentation before the school board. Under a new Texas law, the district is now required to display the posters prominently in each of its school buildings. Afterward, Patriot Mobile celebrated the donation in a blog post titled “Putting God Back Into Our Schools.”

And this week at a tense, eight-hour school board meeting, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District’s board of trustees voted 4-3 to implement a far-reaching set of policies that restrict how teachers can discuss race and gender. The new policies also limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary students to use bathrooms and pronouns that correspond with their genders. And the board made it easier for parents to ban library books dealing with sexuality.

Nearly 200 people signed up to speak during public comments before the board vote at the school board meeting in Grapevine, Texas. Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

To protest the changes, some parents came to the meeting wearing T-shirts with the school district’s name, GCISD, crossed out and replaced with the words “Patriot Mobile Action ISD.”

“They bought four school boards, and now they’re pulling the strings,” said Rachel Wall, the mother of a Grapevine-Colleyville student and vice president of the Texas Bipartisan Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting school board candidates who do not have partisan agendas. “I’m a Christian by faith, but if I wanted my son to be in a religious school, I would pay for him to go to a private school.”

Rachel Wall, the mother of a GCISD student, calls on the board of trustees to reject its "atrocious policy" dictating sweeping revisions in how the school system deals with issues of race, gender and sexuality. Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

Patriot Mobile officials didn’t respond to messages requesting comment. Leigh Wambsganss, executive director of Patriot Mobile Action and vice president of government and media affairs at Patriot Mobile, declined to speak with a reporter at CPAC, saying she did not trust NBC News to accurately report on the company’s political activism. In a social media post days later, she called the journalist’s interview request harassment, adding, “I don’t interview with reporters I don’t trust.”

In recent interviews with conservative media outlets, Wambsganss has said that Patriot Mobile’s goal is to install school board members who will oppose the teaching of “LGBTQ ideologies,” fight to remove “pornographic books,” and stand against school anti-racism initiatives, which she and her supporters have argued indoctrinate children with anti-white and anti-American views.

“You know, the sad thing is there is real racism, and that is really a terrible thing,” Wambsganss said in a June appearance on the Mark Davis Show, a conservative talk radio program that broadcasts in the Dallas region. “But they’re watering down and devaluing that word so bad that it’s become meaningless.”

In that same interview, Wambsganss made clear that Patriot Mobile views its political activism as a religious calling — and that the group’s electoral success this spring was just the beginning.  

“We’re not here on this earth to please man — we’re here to please God,” Wambsganss said, adding later in the interview, “Ultimately we want to expand to other counties, other states and be in every state across the nation.”

‘Make America Christian Again’

Founded about a decade ago, Patriot Mobile markets itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider,” which includes a pledge to donate a portion of users’ monthly bills to conservative causes.

Initially, Patriot Mobile’s founders said their goal was to support groups and politicians who promised to oppose abortion, defend religious freedom, protect gun rights and support the military.

After the 2016 presidential election, the company’s branding shifted further to the right and embraced Trump’s style of politics. One of Patriot Mobile’s most famous advertisements includes the slogan “Making Wireless Great Again,” alongside an image of Trump’s face photoshopped onto a tanned, muscled body holding a machine gun.

After the 2016 presidential election, Patriot Mobile embraced Trump’s brand of politics.Mike Hixenbaugh / NBC News

That approach has drawn the support of some big names on the right.

“You can give your money to AT&T, the parent company of CNN, and you can pay the salary of Don Lemon, or you can support someone like a Patriot Mobile and give back to causes that they believe in,” Donald Trump Jr. said from the stage at a CPAC gathering in February. “That’s not cancel culture, folks. That’s using your damn brain.”

Patriot Mobile has also aligned itself in recent years with political and religious leaders who promote a once-fringe strand of Christian theology that experts say has grown more popular on the right in recent years. Dominionism, sometimes referred to as the Seven Mountains Mandate, is the belief that Christians are called on to dominate the seven key “mountains” of American life, including business, media, government and education.

John Fea, a professor of American history at the private, Christian Messiah University in Pennsylvania, has spent years studying Seven Mountains theology. Fea said the idea that Christians are called on to assert biblical values across all aspects of American society has been around for decades on the right, but “largely on the fringe.”

Trump’s election changed that.

“It fits very well with the ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra,” Fea said. “‘Make America Great Again’ to them means, ‘Make America Christian Again,’ restore America to its Christian roots.”

Patriot Mobile appears to have embraced that shift, Fea said.

Beginning a year ago, one of the leading proponents of the Seven Mountains worldview, Rafael Cruz, a pastor, began leading weekly Bible studies for employees at Patriot Mobile’s corporate office, which the company films and posts on YouTube.

In a recent Patriot Mobile sermon, Cruz — the father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — dismissed the concept of separation of church and state as a myth, arguing that America’s founders meant that ideal as a “one-way wall” preventing the government from interfering with the church, not preventing the church from influencing the government.

He then called on people who “are rooted in the righteousness of the word of God” to run for public office.

“If those people are not running for office, if they are not even voting, then what’s left?” Cruz said. “The wicked electing the wicked.”

Cruz didn’t respond to a message requesting an interview.

Beginning last year, after opposition to “critical race theory” emerged as a political attack on the right, Fea said he began to observe another shift in the Christian Dominionism movement. 

Myra Brown tells GCISD trustees that critical race theory is "divisive, hateful, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-freedom and anti-peace."Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

Rather than focusing primarily on winning federal elections, these groups started talking about the need to take control of public schools — “the ideal battleground,” Fea said, “if you’re looking to fight this battle.”

“This is a spiritual war, they believe, against demonic forces that undermine a godly nation by teaching kids in school that America is not great, America is not a city on the hill or that America has flaws,” Fea said. “If you can get in and teach the right side of history, and social studies and civics lessons about what America is, you can win the next generation and save America for Christ.”

‘Saving our public schools’

Patriot Mobile’s unconventional business strategy appears to be paying off. 

Without providing specific numbers, the company said it doubled its subscriber base in 2021, and as a result, it planned to give more than $1.5 million to conservative causes in 2022, triple the amount from the year prior. 

In January, the company filed documents to establish Patriot Mobile Action and brought on Wambsganss to lead it — a strong signal that the company was planning to get involved in school board politics.

Wambsganss, a long-time political activist, had earned national acclaim among conservatives in 2021 for her work as one of the co-founders of Southlake Families PAC, another group that promotes itself as “unapologetically rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” When the Carroll school system in Southlake unveiled a diversity plan to crack down on racism and anti-LGBTQ bullying in the majority white school district, Southlake Families, under Wambsganss’ leadership, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a slate of school board candidates who promised to kill the plan.

After winning every race by a landslide, the PAC’s success was celebrated on Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal, prompting former Texas GOP Chairman Allan West to urge Southlake Families leaders to “export this to every single major suburban area in the United States of America.”

At the helm of the newly established Patriot Mobile Action, Wambsganss got to work achieving that goal this spring, starting first with some suburban school systems close to home. 

In interviews with conservative outlets, Wambsganss has said she and her team zeroed in on four North Texas independent school districts — Keller, Grapevine-Colleyville, Mansfield and Carroll — that had implemented or considered policies dealing with race, sexuality and gender that she and other Christian conservatives found objectionable.

Leigh Wambsganss interviews pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec at the Patriot Mobile booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 4.Mike Hixenbaugh / NBC News

After interviewing candidates in each district, Patriot Mobile Action settled on a slate of 11 who pledged to support conservative causes. Following the playbook from Southlake, the PAC hired a pair of heavy-hitter GOP consulting firms that had worked on campaigns for Ted Cruz and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — bringing sophisticated national-level political strategies to local school board races.

Patriot Mobile paid Vanguard Field Strategies nearly $150,000 to run get-out-the-vote canvassing operations across the four school districts, according to financial disclosures. The PAC paid another $240,000 to Axiom Strategies to produce and send tens of thousands of political mailers to homes across North Texas.

Patriot Mobile Action sent thousands of political mailers warning residents in Southlake, Keller, Grapevine and Mansfield that critical race theory was endangering their children.Zerb Mellish for NBC News

One flyer sent to Mansfield residents baselessly blamed a recent classroom shooting at a local high school on critical race theory-inspired disciplinary policies and accused the district of putting “woke” politics ahead of the safety of children.

A Patriot Mobile mailer sent in Grapevine and Colleyville endorsed two board candidates who the PAC said would oppose critical race theory, an academic study of systemic racism that, according to the flyer, “violates everything patriots believe in.”

And Patriot Mobile sent flyers endorsing three candidates in Keller under the slogan, “Saving America starts with saving our public schools.”

After all of Patriot Mobile’s candidates won, the company celebrated the victories in a blog post that also included a justification for its decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on nonpartisan local elections.

“While the media today wishes to demonize conservative activism in local races, the truth is that liberal activists have been pouring countless dollars into local politics for many years,” the post said, citing past school board candidate donations from a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for equity in education, as well as one $35,000 donation to a candidate in the Dallas suburbs from a Democratic political action committee in 2021. “Conservative activism at the local level is long overdue.”

At CPAC in August, Bannon asked Wambsganss and Story on his “War Room” TV show whether they had started to see changes in the four school districts.

“Oh, tremendous,” Wambsganss said. “Those 11 seats in four ISDs means that now North Texas has over 100,000 students who, before May, had leftist leadership. Now they have conservative leadership.”

Bannon replied, “Amen.”

Christian music star Natasha Owens wears a Patriot Mobile-themed dress while performing at CPAC in Dallas. Lev Radin / Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

‘This is not love’

On Monday night, North Texas residents got a front-row seat for what it looks like when Patriot Mobile takes over a school board. 

Just 72-hours before the meeting, the Grapevine-Colleyville school district had unveiled a sweeping 36-page policy touching on virtually every aspect of the culture wars over race, gender and sexuality that have dominated school politics since last year.

Under the policy, teachers are prohibited from discussing any concepts related to or inspired by critical race theory or what the policy refers to as “systemic discrimination ideologies.” The policy gives school employees the right to refer to trans and nonbinary students by pronouns and names matching the ones they were assigned at birth — a practice known as misgendering or deadnaming — even if the student’s parents support their child’s gender expression. And the policy prohibits any reading materials and classroom discussions dealing with “gender fluidity,” which the document defines as any belief that “espouses the view that biological sex is merely a social construct.”

Tammy Nakamura, one of the board members backed by Patriot Mobile, said the board’s 4-3 vote to adopt the policy fulfilled her campaign promise “to put an end to adults pushing their worldviews, whims and fantasies onto unsuspecting children.”

GCISD trustee Tammy Nakamura voted to approve sweeping new district policies on race, gender and sexuality.Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

Although some members of the board majority and their supporters argued that the policy merely brought the district in line with state and federal laws, Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the plan goes well beyond the state’s anti-CRT law and appears to be in violation of federal civil rights statutes that protect students from discrimination on the basis of their gender and sexuality.

“This is the most extreme board policy that we have seen related to classroom censorship,” Huddleston said.

Debate over the policy turned Monday’s school board meeting into a political circus.

The Patriot Mobile-aligned True Texas Project, which has been labeled as an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, called on its supporters to pack the meeting and turn it into a party celebrating the new policy. The group set up tents hours beforehand and tailgated in the parking lot, along with an anti-trans activist group whose leader was suspended from Twitter this year after she wrote, “Let’s start rounding up people who participate in pride events,” referring to LGBTQ rights celebrations.

Nearly 200 people signed up to speak during public comments prior to the board vote. 

One man who spoke in support of the new policy urged the board majority to “fight like hell” and “hold the ground against the LGBT mafia and their dang pedo fans” — echoing false claims by some Christian conservatives in recent months that queer educators have been trying to sexually groom children.

“And guess what,” the man shouted into the microphone, “teachers shouldn’t be forced to use your freakin’ made up fantasy pronouns!”

Scott Western calls on GCISD trustees to approve its new policy on gender and “hold the ground against the LGBT mafia."Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

Another resident who spoke in support of the policy said one of the things that made America great was “schools that taught kids to read and know the Bible, and recite the Constitution.” She commended the school board for working to restore those ideals. 

“Our kids have to be taught our foundation,” she said. “Our foundation of God-given inalienable rights, religious freedoms, individualism, democracy and a free market.”

Later, a mom told the board she supported banning classroom discussions of “gender fluidity” because, she said, when her child started identifying as a girl, Grapevine-Colleyville teachers provided the student with information affirming that gender expression. As a result, the mother said, choking up as a beeper signaled that her time had expired, “I lost my son.”

Nobody from Patriot Mobile spoke at the meeting. In a recent talk radio interview, Wambsganss said she and her team were busy mapping out their plans for replicating what they achieved in districts like Grapevine-Colleyville in communities across Texas.

A majority of those who did comment during Monday’s meeting said they opposed the policy changes, including one father who accused Grapevine-Colleyville board members of being beholden to Patriot Mobile. “The result,” he said, “is our kids are being forced to act as pawns in their political game.”

A high school student who identified as LGBTQ told the board she feared that the new policy would make queer students — who are four times as likely to contemplate suicide — feel even more alienated. “Help my friends,” she said. “Don’t tell them that they should be erased.”

Caroline Critz tells GCISD trustees that she's worried about how their new policies restricting classroom discussions of gender will affect her LGBTQ classmates. Emil T. Lippe for NBC News

One mother, a former teacher, turned to scripture to explain her opposition to the school district’s new direction under Patriot Mobile’s influence. She said she was worried about LGBTQ students and children from other marginalized groups.

Paraphrasing Jesus, she said, “They will know us by our love.”

“When I read about the policies and I watch and attend school board meetings,” the woman said, “I keep thinking, ‘This is not love.’”