(The Hill) — The Walt Disney Company is taking the fight to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in an escalating feud between one of Florida’s largest employers and the likely 2024 presidential contender.
Disney CEO Bob Iger said Monday that DeSantis’ decision to punish the company for speaking out against what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law was “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”
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Iger’s remarks come after Disney used a legal loophole to maintain authority over its self-governing district in central Florida, appearing to circumvent a DeSantis-led bill to strip Disney’s power.
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In response to Disney’s criticism of Florida Republicans’ law to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender in schools, DeSantis led an effort to strip Disney of power it had for over 50 years to broadly control land use in a 39-mile district surrounding its Florida resort.
During a shareholder meeting Monday, Iger slammed DeSantis for seeking to “punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right.” Still, Iger announced that Disney planned to invest $17 billion into its Florida resort over the next decade.
“Our premise is that any action that thwarts those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,” Iger said.
Under the new Florida law, the board overseeing the district would be hand-picked by DeSantis rather than Disney. But Disney struck a last-minute deal with its allies on the outgoing board that would keep Disney in control of the district and potentially give the company even more power.
DeSantis on Monday called for an investigation into the legality of the board’s decision and “legal or ethical violations” relating to the move. A DeSantis spokesperson said that all legislative options are on the table to undo the agreement.
“These collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida’s legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to Florida’s chief inspector general.
Disney has become a popular target for Republicans, who have taken aim at the company’s business in China, its support for LGBTQ representation and its opposition to the Florida law.
Last week, Iger laid off Marvel Entertainment chairman Isaac Perlmutter, a prolific GOP donor who gave more than $2.5 million to DeSantis’ reelection campaign with his wife, Laura.
Perlmutter reportedly clashed with the Disney CEO, who is a registered Democrat.
Spat comes as DeSantis loses ground to Trump
DeSantis is feuding with Disney as he falls behind former President Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary, according to recent polling.
If the Disney dispute drags on, it could challenge DeSantis’ image as an adept executive who appeals to Trump supporters and Republicans who want to move away from Trump, said Todd Belt, director of George Washington University’s graduate political management program.
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“His inability to deal with this Disney issue really undercuts both of those particular constituencies,” Belt said. “If it looks like he’s not good at governing, then this really opens him up to criticism, especially from his biggest critic who is going to be Donald Trump.”
Trump led DeSantis by 31 points in a Yahoo News-YouGov poll conducted after Trump was indicted for his role in paying hush money to an adult film actress. DeSantis had trailed Trump by just eight points two weeks prior and held a four-point lead in February.
DeSantis leads Trump by 5 points among Florida Republican voters, according to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey released Tuesday.
DeSantis leads GOP charge against corporate America
Republicans have traditionally maintained close ties with corporate America, which broadly shares their support for low taxes and limited government intervention.
But the tenuous alliance has started to unravel in recent years as large businesses increasingly speak out on social issues and find themselves at odds with Republicans.
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DeSantis is the most aggressive in cracking down on companies. He led bills to prohibit diversity training in the workplace and block companies from considering environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) factors when investing. He also vetoed $35 million in funding for a Tampa Bay Rays facility after the baseball team called for action to stop gun violence.
“Corporatism is not the same as free enterprise,” DeSantis said during a September speech at the National Conservatism Conference. “I think too many Republicans have viewed limited government to basically mean whatever is best for corporate America is how we want to do the economy.”
Some Republicans said DeSantis went too far by punishing Disney, arguing that the government shouldn’t meddle with companies’ affairs. Ken Griffin, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has pledged to bankroll DeSantis’ presidential campaign, said last May he didn’t appreciate the move.
“It’s important that the leaders in both parties stay above the fray when it comes to retaliation against corporate America,” Griffin said at the Milken Institute Global Conference.
Disney wasn’t the only corporation to speak out against Florida law. More than 150 large companies, including Amazon, General Motors, Microsoft and American Airlines, voiced opposition to the bill and other state-level proposals targeting the LGBTQ community.
“These bills would harm our team members and their families, stripping them of opportunities and making them feel unwelcome and at risk in their own communities,” the companies wrote in a February 2022 letter.
The companies added that it’s “exceedingly difficult” to recruit the most qualified candidates in states that pursue similar laws.
Similar retribution efforts have taken place in other states, but they’re relatively rare. In 2021, Republicans in the Georgia House of Representatives voted to revoke a tax break for Delta Air Lines after the company criticized their bill to overhaul voting rules.