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DeSantis takes on Disney in a culture war with national implications

The feud pits two Florida behemoths against each other over teaching of gender-related issues in public schools

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis arrives for a Trump campaign event in Orlando in October 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing battle with one of America’s most recognizable cultural icons in a feud with potential reverberations far beyond Florida.

DeSantis’s decision to go after the Walt Disney Co. for its opposition to a bill banning the teaching of gender-related issues to kids younger than third grade — dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by its foes — opens a new front in the growing culture wars being waged by top Republican officials around the country in a midterm election year. In states from Texas to California, Republicans are increasingly targeting issues important to their base, from abortion rights to medical care for transgender youth and the teaching of race’s impact on U.S. laws. In some cases, they are heavily restricting or banning those things.

This particular clash features a pair of Florida’s most powerful behemoths: the governor, who has made a name for himself with slash-and-burn Trump-style politics; and Disney, the entertainment giant that is one of the state’s largest and most influential employers. Under pressure from its employees, Disney denounced the bill — but has disappointed some by not pushing back further and sooner.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill on March 28 that would limit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students. (Video: Reuters)

DeSantis’s crusade against Disney could win him points among national conservatives as he considers a 2024 presidential run. His press secretary and national conservatives are attacking foes of the bill, formally known as the Parental Rights in Education measure, for allegedly promoting “grooming” children by exposing them to teaching on sexual identity to “separate” them from “a normative sexual and gender identity,” according to the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who labeled Democrats the “party of groomers.” Meanwhile, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham says Disney better be prepared for a challenge to its trademarks and copyrights when Republicans return to power.

Opinion: M-I-C-K-E-Y: He’s a groomer, too!

Nonetheless, Florida observers — some of them Republicans — say DeSantis runs a risk by taking on Disney on its home turf.

“It’s a foolish move politically, but he’ll use it as currency in the Republican Party politics of today to say it’s a war on woke,” said David Jolly, a former Florida Republican congressman who served in Washington with DeSantis. “Disney will be fine. But what this does is show Americans that Ron DeSantis is a governor with a glass jaw who cannot tolerate criticism. That’s what this is about, nothing more than that.”

Florida Democrats, who have long criticized the cozy relationship between Disney lobbyists and GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee, say DeSantis may have taken his culture war a step too far.

“It’s inexplicable that the governor would go after the largest employer in the state, one that attracts millions of visitors from around the world and is a huge part of our tourism industry,” said state Rep. Joseph Geller. “They call Disney the third rail of politics in Florida for a reason.”

Geller, a Democrat, said more puzzling is the way DeSantis and his supporters are attacking Disney, tacitly linking the company to “groomers” who endanger children.

“Even more shocking is that they’ve resurrected those old canards,” Geller said. “He’s playing to his base, but I think it’s a narrowing base. Disney is a tremendous force for good in this state, and it’s one of the most popular brands in the world. Attacking them like this is really hard to understand.”

The feud is also causing blowback from within the Disney family.

Abigail Disney, whose grandfather Roy O. Disney co-founded the company with his brother Walt, says that the company’s special treatment from the state should be examined, but not because of a law favored by Republicans.

“This time, the far-right-wing political machine appears to have gotten out over its skis. Politicians should be asking whether, come next election cycle, Disney or any other corporation will back them given these threats of arbitrary punishment under a potential Republican administration,” she wrote this week in a Washington Post op-ed.

Charlee Disney, the child of Abigail Disney’s brother Roy, came out publicly this week as transgender and also condemned the Florida law.

The controversy centers on legislation banning instruction or classroom discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity” for kindergartners through third graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and requires schools to tell parents when their child receives mental health services.

Critics say the law is vague and will have a chilling effect on how teachers at any grade level can address questions from students that touch on issues such as same-sex marriage. They also worry that it could prevent schools from being a safe place for students who might not feel comfortable talking about gender orientation at home, or who are bullied at school.

Democrats called it the “don’t say gay” bill, and the phrase became a rallying cry for demonstrators and opponents across the nation, seeming to infuriate the governor. DeSantis angrily berated a reporter who used the term at a news conference, accusing him of “peddling false narratives.”

“Does it say that in the bill? Does it say that in the bill?” DeSantis asked in the heated exchange.

DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw promoted her own name for the bill, calling it the “Anti-Grooming Bill.”

“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” Pushaw tweeted in March.

Justice Department information on child exploitation describes grooming as a process that “fosters a false sense of trust and authority over a child in order to desensitize or break down a child’s resistance to sexual abuse.”

President Biden has also weighed in, calling it a “hateful bill” while it was being debated, and saying after it passed that “my administration will continue to fight for dignity and opportunity for every student and family — in Florida and around the country.”

DeSantis signed the bill into law in March 28. That day, Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Chapek released a statement saying the bill “ ... should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”

Many Disney employees criticized Chapek for not doing enough, and for waiting too long to publicly object to the bill.

But DeSantis was incensed, saying Disney “crossed the line.”

The governor then attacked Disney on issues ranging from its dealings with China to the content of its entertainment offerings, taking aim at what he called “a whole host of stuff.” He slammed “people out in California who are working very high up in this company.”

“This stuff coming out their mouths is unbelievable, that they view their programming as a way to inject a lot of these topics into programming for very young kids,” DeSantis said in March.

He said the legislature is reevaluating Disney’s special tax status in Florida, scrutinizing “some of the things that are really unique to Disney over many, many decades, where they have gotten essentially this one corporation put on a pedestal and treated differently ... we shouldn’t let one company have their own set of rules compared to everybody else.”

Disney is part of a tourism mecca that has an estimated economic impact of $75.2 billion in Central Florida. The company has donated millions to politicians in the state, mostly Republicans.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers say the GOP-led Florida legislature will not repeal the new law, and that it’s equally unlikely Disney’s special tax status will be eliminated.

But the dispute shows no signs of stopping.

“This is kind of like your mom and dad fighting at the dinner table,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R) said. “Both of them play a pivotal role within the state. Florida without Disney is damaged. And Florida without a strong governor is weak. The key thing is to figure out how to move beyond this and work together.”

Brandes, one of two Republicans to oppose the controversial bill, said it would be “a foolish error” for the state to try to interfere with Disney’s business.

But other lawmakers agree with DeSantis. State Rep. Spencer Roach (R) said it’s long past time for Florida to treat Disney like any other business. Legislation signed in 1967 at the urging of Disney lobbyists created the Reedy Creek Improvement District covering 25,000 acres in two Florida counties, allowing the company to make its own rules about development and other issues.

Roach wants to repeal the law that created Reedy Creek. He said he’s met with other GOP lawmakers who agree. Some of them have returned donations Disney made to their campaigns since the company criticized the new law.

“Disney has really been politically untouchable in the state of Florida. They’ve been such a political juggernaut that the repeal of Reedy Creek was never seen as remotely possible,” Roach said. “There’s an opportunity now where Disney has been politically weakened, and there’s an opportunity to correct what I would label as an historic aberration in the free market.”

DeSantis, Roach said, is the one politician who could get it done.

“DeSantis is a very popular governor in the state of Florida,” Roach said. “He is certainly not a governor you want to trifle with.”

So far, DeSantis hasn’t announced any official Disney-specific proposals. He scoffed at efforts by New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) to attract Floridians to New York. Adams said the city was buying space on five digital billboards in major Florida cities “denouncing the hateful” law.

Chicago is buying ads in Florida newspapers, inviting businesses to relocate to an “inclusive, equitable, and accessible” city. Los Angeles County barred official travel to Florida and Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) recently said that gender-affirming medical treatment for young people “constitutes child abuse.”

Disney, meanwhile, is expanding its already huge footprint in Florida. The company announced in early April that it would build more than 1,300 units of affordable housing near Orlando for employees as well as the public.

Last year, the company said it was relocating 2,000 employees from its headquarters near Los Angeles to Lake Nona, not far from Walt Disney World near Orlando.

The company stands to get a $570 million tax break from the state for the move — a plan approved by the DeSantis administration in 2020.

Mark Pinsky, the former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel who wrote a 2004 book called “The Gospel According to Disney,” said the current conservative tirades against Disney and any legislative efforts to rein in the company are “doomed to failure.”

“I think they’ll let DeSantis huff and puff, and then the economic powers that be will sit down with him or his people and say, ‘Okay, you’ve got whatever mileage you wanted on this, it’s over now,’ ” Pinsky said. “I don’t think that he seriously thinks that Disney is going to roll over. It’s impossible. I think he’s arrogant and he’s a bully, but he’s not stupid.”

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