Opinion: Disney CEO’s conflict with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill shows growing fractures between business, GOP

Disney’s employees protest against Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill, in Glendale, California on March 22.RINGO CHIU/Reuters

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a habit of thumbing his nose at the progressive-left agenda with state mandates that stir the national political pot, but in the process strained his relationships with some traditional Republican allies – big businesses.

A rising force in Republican politics and an expected US presidential hopeful for 2024, Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly raised his national profile on the back of controversy. He gained wide attention for steadfastly refusing to impose vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic in the name of personal freedoms and open commerce. He relentlessly criticized the Biden administration and other blue-state leaders for their business-unfriendly lockdown mentalities. And he regularly chided elected officials from states with tight COVID-19 restrictions for their hypocrisy in taking winter vacations in Florida to escape their own rules, not just the cold northern weather.

So, it should be no surprise that Mr. DeSantis’s latest legislation, the Parental Rights in Education law, nicknamed the Don’t Say Gay law by opponents, has quickly become a lightning rod for criticism across the United States. The law bans the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity to schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 3. Parents can sue in the event of violations.

The new mayor of New York, Eric Adams, a Democrat, has joined the fray. He called the law “the latest shameful extremist culture war” targeting the LGBTQ community and launched a billboard campaign in several Florida cities inviting them to flee Florida for New York.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Disney butting heads on LGBTQ issue

Disney CEO expresses public disappointment with Florida bill limiting LGBT discussion

The new mandate has also put Mr. DeSantis at odds with Disney DIS-N, Florida’s largest employer, the source of much of the state’s tourism revenue and a contributor to Mr. DeSantis’s own political ambitions. Disney’s California-based chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, has vowed to work to repeal the law after feeling pressure from employees to take a stand on the issue. The company’s Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando attracts about 20 million visitors in a normal year and employs 77,000 people.

It is not the first time Mr. DeSantis has taken on big corporations to make a political point. Last summer, he tangled with the cruise lines serving Florida’s ports over vaccine passports. Like Disney, the cruise lines are big employers and revenue generators for the state. The world’s top three cruise companies are based in Miami.

The friction reflects the increasingly complicated relationships between US businesses and their stakeholders, including lawmakers, around social issues and the fragility of long-time allegiances when there is political capital at stake.

After initially saying it would be “counterproductive” for Disney to weigh in on the new law, Mr. Chapek abruptly changed course. He issued a public apology to LGBTQ employees, and Disney said it would fight to repeal the law that “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law.”

Mr. DeSantis shot back: “For them to say they’re going to work to repeal substantive protection for parents as a company that’s supposedly marketing its services to parents with young children, I think they crossed the line.”

“The state of Florida is governed according to the interests of the people, not according to the political posturing of corporate executives in California,” he added on Twitter.

The Disney vs. DeSantis standoff and the cruise line dust-up may reflect emerging cracks in the relationship between Republicans, long known as the pro-business party, and the corporate world, traditionally big donors to GOP hopefuls. That Mr. DeSantis would call out businesses with such heft in his own backyard shows that old habits die quite easily, at least in Florida.

Disney has been politically active, giving generously to Florida politicians, mostly Republicans, including Mr. DeSantis. With the enactment of the new law, the company said it would curb political contribution in the state.

Disney can’t claim it wasn’t warned. Last June, Mr. DeSantis sent a shot across the company’s bow.

“If you are in one of these corporations, if you are a woke CEO, and you want to get involved in our legislative business, look, it’s a free country,” Mr. DeSantis said at the time. “But understand if you want to do that, I’m fighting back against you. And I’m going to make sure that people understand your business practices, and anything I don’t like about what you’re doing.”

True to his word, Mr. DeSantis has gone after Disney’s business operations in China as a sign of the company’s questionable judgment. He has even invoked Harvey Weinstein, the film mogul convicted of multiple sex crimes, as the personification of a Hollywood culture embraced by Disney that is an untrustworthy steward of family values. Disney acquired Mr. Weinstein’s Miramax in 1993.

While Mr. DeSantis’s nose-thumbing continues to garner attention for him ahead of a potential White House run, the pressing question is whether the hay he makes with the party faithful will outweigh the damage he does by burning bridges – including those with big business – in the process.

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