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

State lawmakers also revealed Friday that Disney had been lobbying against the bill behind the scenes.
Guests stroll along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World on Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
Guests stroll along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World on Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published March 11, 2022|Updated March 12, 2022

Disney, one of the most influential companies in Florida and a major campaign donor, is pausing all political contributions in the state following a messy, public dispute with Gov. Ron DeSantis over House Bill 1557, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t say gay” bill.

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

Disney sent a copy of the message, titled, “The Allyship You Deserve,” to the Tampa Bay Times upon request.

Thank you to all who have reached out to me sharing your pain, frustration and sadness over the company’s response to the Florida ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. Speaking to you, reading your messages, and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was,” the message reads. “It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet 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 am sorry.”

The donation freeze is the latest move in what has become a tense clash between DeSantis, who is widely considered a 2024 presidential contender and has publicly said he supports the bill, and Disney, a multibillion-dollar company that wields massive clout as one of the top employers in the state. State lawmakers revealed in interviews Friday that the company had lobbied behind the scenes to try to stop or alter the bill during the legislative session.

In addition to the pause on Florida political contributions, Chapek also wrote that the company would “immediately” be “increasing our support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states.” State lawmakers in Georgia recently introduced a bill modeled after Florida’s, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Disney has been facing mounting pressure from some customers and employees for not taking an aggressive public stand against the bill.

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

The bill bars classroom lessons in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation and gender identity, or in other grades in ways that are not considered age-appropriate. It has faced massive backlash, including from LGBTQ students who staged walkouts across the state.

Proponents have said it maintains parents’ rights to teach their kids about gender and sexuality, while the governor’s press secretary has said it would prevent the “grooming” of kids.

The bill’s critics argued it singled out sexual orientation and gender identity, creating the appearance that LGBTQ people are somehow inappropriate or controversial. They also said it could have a chilling effect on teachers having honest conversations with students.

As the public scrutiny of Disney intensified, Chapek spoke with DeSantis on Wednesday — the day after the Legislature passed the bill — to express his concerns about how the measure could affect LGBTQ kids. On a call with shareholders that day, Chapek said the discussion was “extraordinary” and that the governor was “very open.”

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

At an event in Boca Raton, he told supporters there was “zero” chance he would change his mind on the bill, according to a video of the event provided to Fox News.

His campaign also sent out a fundraising email blast slamming Disney for being “woke” and “falling for the corporate media’s phony hysteria over a Florida bill that sensibly prohibits k-3rd graders from being indoctrinated with transgenderism and R-rated lessons about sexuality.” The message further stated that a “member of our staff” would hand-deliver a copy of the bill to Disney’s headquarters “since Disney decided not to read the bill.”

Disney’s unsuccessful call with DeSantis wasn’t the company’s first attempt to intervene, lawmakers told the Times/Herald Friday.

Disney was lobbying Florida lawmakers early on in the process, according to Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, who said he talked to the company five or six times from the moment the bill was filed in January until it passed this week.

“They targeted me early because it was going to the Education Committee,” Gruters said. “They said they didn’t think it was the right policy for Florida and that they had a lot of employees that expressed frustration and that they did not want the bill.”

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

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

Disney later 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 say that schools should not conduct lessons on “human sexuality or sexual activity.”

“If the intent is not to marginalize anyone, let’s make sure we aren’t,” Brandes said when 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 occur.”

The amendment was voted down. It was at that point, Brandes said Friday, that he knew that Republican leaders wanted the broader culture war implications that this bill carried, in addition to the specific policy impact.

“Getting the language across the finish line was not enough for them,” he added.

After that, Disney turned to Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, the chamber’s only openly gay lawmaker.

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

“Disney was very active in pushing the amendment,” 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 back from them.

That amendment was also voted down on the Senate floor, a day before the Senate passed the measure nearly along party lines.

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

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

“I am hopeful that in time, we will be able to work it all out with Disney and reach common ground,” he said.

Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.