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Disney’s move may rob DeSantis of 2024 calling card

DeSantis introduced his takeover of the board that oversees Disney by saying 'there’s a new sheriff in town.’ It turns out the old sheriff had something to say about that.

A person wearing a mouse costume takes selfies with supporters of Florida's Republican-backed education bill, dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by its critics, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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Of all the battles Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has picked in his various culture wars, none looms larger than the one against Disney. DeSantis has turned his fight into a calling card, even as some Republicans have expressed discomfort with the government going after private businesses over their political views.

And we just learned that Disney has ratcheted up the battle — with implications for the 2024 presidential race.

In a previously unpublicized move from last month, the Walt Disney Co. sought to preempt a DeSantis-led takeover of its special tax district by passing restrictive new covenants that appear to neuter DeSantis’s (R) new handpicked board.

The move could reverberate during DeSantis’s expected 2024 presidential campaign. DeSantis declared a month ago, “Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end” and “There’s a new sheriff in town.” But it looks as if he’ll have to engage in a legal battle to back his boasts. And already, the discovery of Disney’s new gambit is leading to charges that DeSantis’s move was mostly for show.

DeSantis initially tried to revoke Disney’s special tax status altogether last year, following the corporation’s opposition to the Florida education bill dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” He was ultimately forced to back off that when it proved impractical. But this year he engineered what was billed as a takeover of the board that oversees Disney’s development — formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The board is now made up of five members appointed by the governor.

Some at the time suggested that Disney was conceding defeat to the governor, appearing to give the would-be GOP 2024 nominee a major victory. Yet it turns out that the day before the Florida House voted to give DeSantis the power to install the new board, the previous board quietly passed new covenants. New board members says those covenants substantially hamstring the board’s ability to do much of anything.

“This essentially makes Disney the government,” new board member Ron Peri told the Orlando Sentinel. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”

The logical question from there is why are we just finding out about this. Despite the lack of publicity about the move, it was done in a public meeting held the day before a key vote, and the documents were posted by the Orange County comptroller on Feb. 9. And experts say it was foreseeable that Disney would try to do something like this.

A DeSantis spokesperson late Wednesday said that “DeSantis always thinks 10 steps ahead,” but other comments from the governor’s team suggest it is still trying to figure out what this means and how to fight it.

“An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement. “We are pleased the new governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.”

The key words there would seem to be “initial review” — the covenants, after all, were passed nearly two months ago. In addition, the governor’s office merely says the covenants “may have” legal holes in them, suggesting the governor’s team isn’t yet convinced of that. (DeSantis’s office didn’t answer a question about when it became aware of the situation.)

Another board member seemed to hint at a possible legal strategy, calling the covenants “a subversion of the will of the voters and the legislature and the governor."

“It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern,” Brian Aungst Jr. told the Sentinel.

University of Florida law professor Danaya Wright said it would be difficult to argue that the covenants are invalid, given how common such covenants are and that Disney can say it had an interest in protecting itself from adverse actions by the incoming board. The will of the voters could also be understood as the existing laws that allowed it to pass such covenants in the first place, she said.

Beyond that, Wright said, “really the only thing left to argue is that there is some kind of fraud, intent to defraud or bad motive here.”

DeSantis has a big decision to make about how hard to fight this. The move clearly undermines a major policy action and signature political issue. Should DeSantis fight it and lose, it would be another blow for an effort he has already been forced to pull back on.

One of the few declared Republican 2024 candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy, hit DeSantis on Wednesday by suggesting the news indicates his Disney campaign was mostly a public-relations effort.

“Here’s what happens when a career politician meets a woke corporation: they strike a deal & both sides win,” Ramaswamy said in a tweet. “The politician gets to do a press conference & the company gets to do exactly what it wants.”

Other potential 2024 hopefuls have suggested DeSantis’s moves against Disney run afoul of the party’s traditionally conservative, small-government approach to private business.

“The idea of going after [Disney’s] taxing authority — that was beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, a limited-government Republican, would be prepared to do,” former vice president Mike Pence said last month. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has said that it “isn’t very conservative” to be “penalizing your business because they disagree with you politically.”

DeSantis initially claimed that the effort wasn’t about retaliation against Disney but rather his opposition to such special tax statuses. But he has at other times pointed to Disney’s political moves, labeling it a “woke” company.

The reignition of his showdown with Disney also comes as multiple polls have shown DeSantis losing ground to former president Donald Trump. A Fox News poll released late Wednesday showed Trump expanding his 15-point lead from last month to 30 points.

In addition to that headache, DeSantis is now faced with making good on his major claims to having brought Disney to heel.