Thursday, April 21, 2022

How the Gay Rights Showdown Threatens Disney's Unprecedented Self-Rule in Florida

One of the big culture war stories of the moment. 

Governor DeSantis is a fighter.

At the Los Angeles Times, "The speed at which the legislature has acted against Disney reflects the growing tension between the company’s outwardly progressive stance on social issues and Florida’s conservatives":

For more than half a century, Walt Disney World has effectively operated as it own municipal government in central Florida.

A 1967 state law established the Reedy Creek Improvement District, giving Walt Disney Co. extraordinary powers in an area encompassing 25,000 acres near Orlando where the sprawling themed resort now sits. The law grants Disney a wide range of abilities, including the power to issue bonds and provide its own utilities and emergency services, such as fire protection.

The law is partly what convinced Disney to come to Florida in the first place and allowed it to flourish and become the state’s largest private employer, with nearly 80,000 jobs.

Now, though, that special designation is under serious threat as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators wage an escalating culture war against Disney over the Burbank-based entertainment giant’s opposition to legislation that it considers to be anti-gay.

The Florida House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would dissolve Walt Disney World’s private government. The action came a day after the Florida Senate passed the bill that would dissolve all independent special districts established before 1968, including Reedy Creek. State senators voted 23 to 16 in favor of the bill during a special session of the state Legislature.

“Disney is a guest in Florida,” Republican Rep. Randy Fine, who sponsored the bill, tweeted on Tuesday before the vote. “Today, we remind them.”

DeSantis, who had previously backed legislative efforts to revoke Disney’s special privileges, on Tuesday expanded the special session to consider the elimination of the district. The bombshell announcement dropped just hours before the special session that was originally intended to focus on congressional redistricting, which has also been controversial. The lawmakers also approved DeSantis’ redistricting map that favors Republicans.

DeSantis and conservative commentators have spent weeks blasting Disney for its opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which the governor signed last month. Disney has said its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.” The company also pledged to “pause” all political donations in the state as it reevaluates its approach to advocacy.

Disney’s Chief Executive Bob Chapek first voiced opposition to the bill, nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents, after receiving blowback from employees. Chapek, who initially resisted getting involved to avoid Disney becoming a political football, spoke out only after the bill passed the state Legislature.

The Parental Rights law bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through Grade 3 “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” LGBTQ activists say the law amounts to a homophobic attack on queer youth.

The speed at which the legislature has acted against Disney reflects the growing tension between the company’s outwardly progressive stance on social issues and Florida’s conservatives, particularly DeSantis, who many observers believe will mount a presidential run in 2024.

Some observers had seen the rhetoric as mere grandstanding. But proving a point against Disney may matter more now to DeSantis’ base than the traditional business-friendly aims of economic conservatives, analysts told The Times.

“I thought that this was an effort to shoot across the bow and cause Disney to steer in a slightly different direction, and that wiser minds would prevail,” said Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.” “That could still happen. But what’s really behind this is the culture war. Things have changed. This is not the Republican Party of the Bushes.”

But aspects of how the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District would work are still unclear...

Disney's making a big mistake, and they'll lose, badly.