In Disney, DeSantis finds his corporate foil

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

But Disney’s biggest campaign contribution to Gov. Ron DeSantis this cycle might not be money but rather the company’s decision to denounce the law he signed that prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s public schools.

For months, DeSantis has steadily increased his rhetoric denouncing “the rise of corporate wokeness,” but he didn’t have a clear target until Disney announced its opposition to the measure, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, on March 9. Since then, the company — Florida’s largest employer — has been a singular focus for the governor as he runs for re-election and eyes a 2024 presidential bid. As a vestige of Florida’s old business-aligned GOP, Disney provided DeSantis a perfect foil to highlight the revolution in Republican politics as it de-emphasizes talk about free markets in favor of culture war attacks on “wokeness.”

DeSantis on Thursday parlayed Disney’s opposition to the law into a fundraising pitch, casting himself as a family-values David fighting what he said was a “radical” corporate Goliath. He also publicly raised the question of whether legislators should cancel Disney’s special status under Florida law that effectively makes the company its own government in a part of the Orlando area that includes Disney World.

He’s earned conservative accolades from Fox News appearances criticizing Disney for doing business in China yet remaining silent about the Uyghur genocide, and for sending Disney cruises to the Caribbean island of Dominica, where homosexuality is criminalized.

“This is right in DeSantis’ wheelhouse,” said José Oliva, a DeSantis ally who was the Florida House speaker in 2019 and 2020, during the governor’s first two years in office. “Disney’s woke capitalism is exactly what DeSantis calls out.”

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 offers a window into how he would campaign and govern if he decided to run for president and won the White House.

“His appeal is he fights back, he stands up regardless of where the stampede is going,” Oliva said. “Disney perhaps thought that, as a large corporation, that it was above these things. Now it realizes it’s going to be treated like everyone else.”

Disney, perhaps unaccustomed to sustained fire from a Florida governor, has declined to comment publicly on the criticism from DeSantis. 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-dollar donors who potentially insulate him from any fears of losing corporate contributions, which nevertheless fill his substantial war chest. And that makes it easier for him to collect campaign money on one hand, and beat corporations with the other, if it fits his agenda.

“DeSantis’ national small-dollar donors, the QAnon extreme-right crowd is who he plays to. It’s not Floridians,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which sued the state Thursday over the law Disney denounced. 

DeSantis’ office reacted to the Equality Florida lawsuit by questioning whether Disney was underwriting the suit. 

Smith said the lawyers are working pro-bono and criticized the governor for having a “surveillance and censorship agenda — control and intimidation. They’re fine with all kinds of things for corporations as long as they stay out of the culture war way.”

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

DeSantis banned mask mandates in local governments and schools, and he was the first Republican governor to cross the powerful cruise industry lobby — of which Disney is a member — by signing a law banning businesses from asking customers whether they’ve been vaccinated against Covid just as lines were eager to set sail. It was a sign that the business-first corporate-friendly politics of the GOP weren’t always a top concern.

Denouncing Disney marks a split in a previously cozy relationship.

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

Disney has so much clout in Tallahassee that it has helped stymie gambling legislation and successfully fought for tax breaks over the years. In 2008, Disney beat the powerful NRA by getting another exemption written into a law that would have otherwise 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.

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

During the lawmaking session, Disney openly opposed that law with other companies, saying the government shouldn’t interfere with private business. Initially, the company’s CEO, Bob Chapek, said Disney would not get involved over the measure limiting LGBTQ classroom instruction.

Under pressure from company employees and outside groups, however, Chapek reversed course early last month and privately spoke with DeSantis to set up a meeting to voice concerns. But when Chapek referred to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in a subsequent critical statement, the governor responded by blasting Disney for being “woke” and began ratcheting up the pressure on the company.

The legislation, which is titled ​​the Parental Rights in Education bill, does not contain the words “don’t say gay,” though legal experts and opponents point out the bill’s language is vague, leaving room for interpretation. It generally prohibits teachers from instructing kids about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade.

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

Chapek also pledged $5 million to the Human Rights campaign, but it refused the donation, saying the company did too little, too late.

“Disney clearly intended to stay out of the political spotlight, and in making that decision, they put themselves right in the spotlight,” said Stephen Gaskill, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s LGBTQ+ caucus. “I don’t know where Disney goes from there. They’re trying to find a middle ground in a time when people want you to take one side or the other when there is no middle ground.”

Disney’s team of 38 lobbyists in Tallahassee, one of the largest in the state Capitol, has largely found itself in disbelief over the falling out, according to one lobbyist for the company.

“This was a total s— show response by corporate,” the lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to NBC News, said. “DeSantis is just a different animal and no one around here really knows how to deal with him because they know they’re going to get run over.”

Republican polling in the state indicates the law is popular — even among Democrats — when voters are asked if they support or oppose allowing young kids to be taught about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

DeSantis’ campaign is so confident he’s on the right side of public opinion that allies have mused about running ads in Spanish and Creole that accuse Democrats of wanting to teach kids about sexual orientation and gender identity, according to insiders. They said DeSantis laughed when local news coverage in Orlando showed only one 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 are inversely proportional.

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