Disney suspends Florida political donations amid ‘don’t say gay’ bill clash with DeSantis

Disney, one of Florida’s most influential corporations and a top campaign donor, is suspending all political contributions in the state following a messy public dispute with Governor Ron DeSantis over House Bill 1557which critics dubbed the bill “Don’t Say Gay”.

Company CEO Bob Chapek made the announcement Friday in a message to all employees, “but especially to our LGBTQ+ community.” In it, he apologized for not speaking out against the bill sooner and said the company would review its advocacy policies.

Disney sent a copy of the message, titled “The Ally You Deserve,” to the Tampa Bay Weather on demand.

Thank you to everyone who reached out to me to share their pain, frustration, and sadness over the company’s response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Talking to you, reading your messages and meeting you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was,” the post read. “It’s clear that this is not just a problem with a bill in Florida, but rather another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I apologize.”

Donation freeze is the latest move in what has become a tense clash between DeSantis, who is widely believed to be a 2024 presidential candidate and has publicly said he supports the bill, and multi-billion dollar company Disney. which wields massive influence as one of the state’s top employers. State lawmakers revealed in interviews Friday that the company lobbied behind the scenes to try to stop or amend the bill during the legislative session.

In addition to the pause on Florida’s political contributions, Chapek also wrote that the company would “immediately” “increase its support for advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states.” Georgia state lawmakers recently introduced a Florida-inspired bill, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Disney is facing increasing pressure from some customers and employees for not taking an aggressive public stance against the bill.

Some had also called on the company to stop contributing to lawmakers who supported it. Disney or its affiliates have made campaign contributions in recent years to all sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, according to state campaign finance records. Since 2011, these lawmakers have received at least a combined $76,000 from the company.

Bill bans K-3 classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, or other levels in a way that is not considered age-appropriate . He faced massive backlash, including from LGBTQ students who staged walkouts across the state.

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Supporters said it preserved parents’ right to teach their children about gender and sexuality, while the governor’s press secretary said it would prevent the “grooming” of children.

Critics of the bill have argued that it highlights sexual orientation and gender identity, making LGBTQ people seem somehow inappropriate or controversial. They also said it could have a chilling effect on teachers having honest conversations with students.

As Disney’s public scrutiny intensified, Chapek spoke with DeSantis on Wednesday — the day after the bill passed the Legislative Assembly — to voice concerns about how the measure could affect LGBTQ children. On a call with shareholders that day, Chapek said the discussion was “amazing” and the governor was “very open.”

But on Thursday, DeSantis made it clear the conversation was over.

At an event in Boca Raton, he told supporters there was ‘no’ chance he would change his mind on the bill, according to a video of the event provided to Fox News.

His campaign also sent an explosion of fundraising emails criticizing Disney for being “woke up” and “falling into bogus corporate media hysteria over a Florida bill that reasonably prohibits K-3 students to be indoctrinated with transgender and R-rated lessons on sexuality. The message further stated that a “member of our staff” would be hand-delivering a copy of the invoice to Disney headquarters “since Disney has decided not to read the invoice.”

Disney’s failed call with DeSantis wasn’t the company’s first attempt to intervene, lawmakers say say it Schedules / Announcement Friday.

Disney lobbied Florida lawmakers early in the process, according to Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, who said he spoke to the company five or six times since the bill was introduced in January until to its adoption this week.

“They targeted me early on because it was going to the education committee,” Gruters said. “They said they didn’t think it was the right policy for Florida and they had a lot of employees expressing their frustration and they didn’t want the bill.”

The lobbying effort did not work. Gruters put the bill on the agenda and he cleared his committee.

“In the end, I disagreed with them and went with the governor and the team and the rest is history,” Gruters said.

Disney then worked with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, on a proposed amendment, Brandes confirmed. His amendment would have changed the bill from focusing on gender identity and sexual orientation to saying that schools should not provide lessons on “human sexuality or sexual activity”.

“If the intent isn’t to marginalize anyone, let’s make sure we don’t,” Brandes said in arguing for the amendment last month. “Let’s be clear and clearly define and say that conversations about human sexuality or sexual activity that fall outside of state guidelines should not take place.”

The amendment was rejected. It was then, Brandes said on Friday, that he knew Republican leaders wanted the broader culture war implications this bill carried, in addition to the specific political impact.

“Putting your tongue across the finish line wasn’t enough for them,” he added.

After that, Disney turned to Senate Education Committee Vice Chairman Shevrin Jones, the only openly gay lawmaker in the chamber.

Jones, D-West Park, wanted to change the bill to prohibiting any classroom instruction “intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity”.

“Disney has been very active in pushing the amendment forward,” Jones said in an interview Friday. “They were providing me with suggestions and working with me.”

Jones said he also sent the language to the governor’s office for review. But he never heard from them.

This amendment was also defeated in the Senate, a day before the Senate passed the measure almost in the direction of the parties.

It’s rare in Florida for a governor or heads of state to tangle so publicly with Disney, a deep-pocketed donor who has successfully swayed bills in the past.

Gruters, who in addition to being a senator is also chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said he hopes things will calm down in the future.

“Hopefully over time we can work things out with Disney and find some common ground,” he said.

Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.