Florida Democrats move party fundraiser after controversy over Disney, timing

The move is part of the continued backlash to the so-called “don’t say gay” bill.
A Disney cast member displays a Mickey Mouse pin on his shirt at The Center, an LGBTQ support organization, while participating in an employee walkout of Walt Disney World, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Orlando.
A Disney cast member displays a Mickey Mouse pin on his shirt at The Center, an LGBTQ support organization, while participating in an employee walkout of Walt Disney World, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Orlando. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published March 22, 2022|Updated March 23, 2022

The Florida Democratic Party said Tuesday it is moving venues and rescheduling its annual fundraising gala and organizing event after facing criticism over its timing and its decision to host the event at Walt Disney World.

The decision was announced hours after the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus said it would skip the event, called Leadership Blue, because it was being held at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort near Orlando. The caucus said The Walt Disney Co. didn’t do enough to publicly come out against controversial Florida legislation that would prohibit classroom lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Scheduling Leadership Blue at Disney during Pride Month this year is nothing but tone deaf,” Stephen Gaskill, president of the caucus, which has 21 chapters, said in a statement. “To put it another way: (Florida Democratic Party) — read the room.”

Florida Democratic Party chairperson Manny Diaz said Tuesday evening that the party had gotten feedback that the event’s dates, originally scheduled for June 17-19, conflicted with Pride Month, Juneteenth and Father’s Day. He did not mention Disney by name in a short statement but said, “Our timing was not ideal. We also acknowledge that in our fight for freedom and fairness, we can always do more.”

He said the party would share information about rescheduled dates and location “once we have explored available options.”

Tensions have run high in Florida over House Bill 1557, called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill but branded the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents. It prohibits classroom lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3, or for older children in ways deemed not age-appropriate.

Proponents of the bill, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have charged it will protect against “injecting sexual instruction” and “transgenderism” into the classrooms of young kids. Critics, including LGBTQ students who protested around the state, say it marginalizes queer youth, an already vulnerable group.

Disney, one of the most influential companies in Florida, has come under scrutiny for its position on the bill from all sides.

DeSantis mocked the company as being too “woke” a day after having a private discussion with Disney CEO Bob Chapek during which Chapek expressed concerns over the bill. That phone call took place the day after the bill passed the Florida Legislature.

Meanwhile, some employees and customers have criticized the company for not taking a more public, forceful stance against the bill. The company has also faced scrutiny over its donations over the years to every sponsor and co-sponsor of the contentious legislation.

Several lawmakers have said that Disney quietly lobbied to soften or stop the bill, but those efforts were unsuccessful. Disney has since announced a pause on all its Florida political contributions.

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

Walt Disney World did not respond Tuesday evening to an email requesting comment on the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus’ statements on the company and the group’s planned boycott.

The intraparty controversy over the Leadership Blue event comes during a year when Democrats desperately need unity if they are to wage competitive races against Florida Republicans, who are generally better funded and more organized, during the midterms.

Gaskill earlier Tuesday called on other officials and candidates to skip the event. In response, agriculture commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried also applied pressure Tuesday, saying in a statement that Disney’s response to the bill was “tepid, short-sighted, and disappointing at best” and that if the event remained at Disney, she would not attend.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who’s also running for governor, similarly tweeted that “given the timing and conversation going on right now at Disney, it’s prudent the party consider other options.”

Related: Florida LGBTQ Democrats tackle turning a 'terrifying' year into election results

He did, however, also say that after early “mistakes,” the company “is trying to do the right thing — in the face of Governor DeSantis’ attacks on our LGBTQ+ community.”

Following the Democratic Party’s announcement that the fundraiser would be moved, Gaskill released a second statement thanking leaders for the response.

“While it may seem like a family squabble that spilled into the street, this situation underscores that the many groups, organizations and individuals that make up the (Florida Democratic Party) can pull together when the cause is right,” he said.