At Disney, DeSantis finds his corporate foil

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — One of Florida’s biggest political players, The Walt Disney Co. is known here in the state capitol for getting what it wants by showering candidates and parties with cash.

But Disney’s biggest campaign contribution to Governor Ron DeSantis this cycle may not be the money, but rather the company’s decision to speak out against the law he signed that bans “discussions in class on sexual orientation or gender identity” in public schools across the state.

For months, DeSantis steadily increased his rhetoric denouncing “the rise of the corporate awakening,” but he had no clear goal until Disney announced his opposition to the measure, which critics called the bill “Don’t Say Gay”. March 9. Since then, the company — Florida’s largest employer — has been the focus of the governor’s mind as he seeks re-election and considers a 2024 presidential bid. As a remnant of the former GOP-aligned on Florida affairs, Disney has provided DeSantis with a perfect film to highlight the revolution in Republican politics as he downplays talk of free markets in favor of culture war attacks on “revivalism.”

On Thursday, DeSantis turned Disney’s opposition to the law into a fundraising pitch, portraying himself as a family-value David fighting what he called a “radical” corporate Goliath. He also publicly raised the question of whether lawmakers should rescind Disney’s special status under Florida law that makes the company its own government in a part of the Orlando area that includes Disney World.

He has received conservative praise during appearances on Fox News criticizing the company for doing business in China while remaining silent on the Uyghur genocide and for sending Disney cruises to the Caribbean island of Dominica, where the homosexuality is illegal.

“It’s right in the DeSantis wheelhouse,” said Jose Oliva, a DeSantis ally who served as Florida House speaker in 2019 and 2020, the governor’s first two years in office. “Disney’s woke capitalism is exactly what DeSantis calls it.”

He also reads about it: DeSantis was recently spotted with a copy of the book “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” by Vivek Ramaswamy, according to an insider.

DeSantis’ eagerness to do battle with Disney is a window into how he would campaign and govern if he decided to run for president and win the White House.

“His appeal is that he stands up for himself, he stands up no matter where the stampede is,” Oliva said. “Disney maybe thought as a big company it was above those things. Now he realizes he’s going to be treated like everyone else.

Disney, perhaps unaccustomed to sustained fire from a Florida governor, declined to comment publicly on DeSantis’ criticisms. Disney did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Because of DeSantis’ status as a national figure in the Republican Party, he has built a strong base of small donors that potentially insulates him from any fear of losing corporate contributions, which nonetheless fill his substantial war chest. And that makes it easier for him to raise campaign money on the one hand and beat businesses on the other, if that fits his agenda.

“DeSantis’ small domestic donors, QAnon’s far-right mob, that’s who he plays with. They’re not Floridians,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, who sued the State Thursday for the law denounced by Disney.

DeSantis’ office reacted to the Equality Florida lawsuit by questioning whether Disney would endorse the lawsuit.

Smith said the attorneys were working pro bono and criticized the governor for having a “surveillance and censorship agenda — control and intimidation. They’re okay with all sorts of things for business as long as they stay out of the culture war.

DeSantis’ Disney feud is a continuation of his fight-against-all political style that turned him into a national GOP figure during the pandemic, when pundits criticized his laissez-faire approach to the Covid response. Critics and negative media coverage drew fiery responses from DeSantis, and the Republican base loved politics as well as politics.

DeSantis has banned mask mandates in local governments and schools, and he was the first Republican governor to break through the powerful cruise industry lobby — of which Disney is a member — by signing legislation banning companies from asking customers if they were vaccinated against Covid just as the lines were eager to set sail. It was a sign that the GOP’s pro-business policy wasn’t always a top concern.

Exposing Disney marks a rift in a previously intimate relationship.

Disney has paid DeSantis $100,000 since he took office. Since 1994, according to state campaign finance records, Disney has donated at least $45 million to various parties, committees and candidates. About $19 million in Disney money went to various Republican-led committees and candidates, and about $5.1 million went to Democrats, records show.

Disney has so much influence in Tallahassee that it has helped thwart gambling legislation and successfully advocated for tax breaks over the years. In 2008, Disney beat the mighty NRA by having another exemption written into a law that would otherwise have allowed workers to park locked cars with guns in workplace parking lots.

Last year, Disney also got a special exemption written into a Big Tech crackdown bill that DeSantis wanted. He opposed the exemption but signed the law last year.

Because of DeSantis’ status as a national figure in the Republican Party, he’s built a solid base of small donors that potentially insulates him from any fear of losing corporate contributions, which nonetheless fill his sizable war chest. And that makes it easier for him to raise campaign money on the one hand and beat businesses on the other, if that fits his agenda.

Smith noted that DeSantis also signed another law that makes it easier to ban books from school libraries, and he pushed for another measure called the “Stop WOKE Act” that targets diversity and equity training used by companies like Disney.

During the legislative session, Disney openly opposed this law along with other companies, saying the government should not interfere with private companies. Initially, company CEO Bob Chapek said Disney would not get involved in the measure restricting LGBTQ classroom instruction.

Under pressure from company employees and outside groups, however, Chapek reversed course early last month and spoke privately with DeSantis to set up a meeting to air his concerns. But when Chapek called the legislation the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in a later critical statement, the governor responded by criticizing Disney for being “woke” and began to increase the pressure on the company. (The legislation, titled Parental Rights in Education Bill, does not contain the words “don’t say gay,” though legal experts and opponents point out that the bill’s language is vague, leaving room for to interpretation.)

In a statement posted on Disney’s website March 11, Chapek apologized to employees and said the company would suspend all political donations in Florida pending a review.

Chapek also pledged $5 million to the human rights campaign, but he refused the donation, saying the company had done too little, too late.

In a statement posted on Disney’s website March 11, Chapek apologized to employees and said the company would suspend all political donations in Florida pending a review.

“Disney clearly intended to stay out of the political spotlight, and in making this decision, they put themselves in the spotlight,” said Florida Democratic Party LGBTQ+ Caucus Chair Stephen Gaskill. “I don’t know where Disney goes from here. They are trying to find common ground in a time when people want you to side with one side or the other when there is no common ground.

Disney’s lobbying team of 38 in Tallahassee, one of the largest in the state Capitol, was left largely in disbelief over the falling out, according to a lobbyist with the company.

“It was a total corporate response,” the lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told NBC News. “DeSantis is just a different animal and nobody here really knows how to deal with him because they know they’re going to get run over.”

Republican polls in the state indicate the law is popular — even among Democrats — when voters are asked whether they support or oppose teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity to children. young children in schools.

DeSantis’ campaign is so confident he’s on the right side of public opinion that allies have considered running ads in Spanish and Creole that accuse Democrats of wanting to teach about sexual orientation and gender identity to children, according to insiders. They said DeSantis laughed when local media coverage in Orlando showed a lone Disney World worker protesting the law during a recent walkout organized by Disneyland workers in California.

State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican ally of DeSantis who sponsored the Stop Woke Act, said the fortunes of Disney and DeSantis were inversely proportional.

“It’s a lose-lose for Disney and a win-win for DeSantis,” Diaz said.

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