New Disney penalties hint at DeSantis’ punitive streak

The governor sends messages to would-be opponents through his actions, and has the backing of a supportive Florida Legislature.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, speaks at a news conference as Wilton Simpson, Commissioner of Agriculture listens, at the Reedy Creek Administration Building Monday, April 17, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. DeSantis and Florida lawmakers ratcheted up pressure on Walt Disney World on Monday by announcing legislation that will use the regulatory powers of Florida government to exert unprecedented oversight on the park resort's rides and monorail. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, speaks at a news conference as Wilton Simpson, Commissioner of Agriculture listens, at the Reedy Creek Administration Building Monday, April 17, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. DeSantis and Florida lawmakers ratcheted up pressure on Walt Disney World on Monday by announcing legislation that will use the regulatory powers of Florida government to exert unprecedented oversight on the park resort's rides and monorail. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published April 22, 2023|Updated April 28, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis has promised that Disney won’t get the last word.

A year into his tangle with one of his state’s largest employers, the governor this week announced new penalties against the company, which defied his attempt to strip some of its self-governing powers. Increased property taxes, more oversight over Disney World rides and even building a state prison near the theme park were all possible, DeSantis said.

“Ultimately, we’re going to win on every single issue involving Disney,” DeSantis said earlier this month at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he first floated the idea of upping the company’s tax burden.

As his profile and political clout have grown, DeSantis has increasingly sought to punish those who cross him or get in the way of his agenda. His grudge match with Disney is a prime example. This scorched-earth approach is often aimed at sending a message to would-be opponents — including some who are usually his allies. The resulting anxiety reverberates in drag bars, universities and the state Capitol.

As DeSantis eyes the presidency, with an expected 2024 campaign launch coming in the early summer, this retaliatory reflex also raises questions about how he would govern in Washington — a town where deal-making skills are essential.

“I can’t think of one thing he has been willing to negotiate on. It’s always been: If it’s not my way, I’m going to slap you down, run against you for school board, take away your tax status, take away your books,” said David Jolly, a former Republican colleague of DeSantis’ in Congress who’s now a political commentator. “Compromise is not necessary in our politics, but it is in our governing.”

Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ office, said that the actions against Disney are a response to its “unfair special advantage compared to other businesses in the state” and its “11th hour agreement” to preserve those privileges.

“That’s an attempt to subvert the will of the people of Florida, and Gov. DeSantis will not stand for that,” Griffin said in an emailed statement. “Good and limited government (and, indeed, principled conservatism) reduces special privilege, encourages an even playing field for businesses, and upholds the will of the people. Gov. DeSantis is the champion of the people of Florida.”

Creating enemies and fans

While top aides in DeSantis’ office were researching whether to oust Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office, they made sure Warren didn’t see it coming. Rather than ask Warren about his policies, court testimony later revealed that the governor’s aides sought to make his removal a surprise. DeSantis has since cited Warren as an example of his ability to battle soft-on-crime prosecutors.

Warren is a Democrat and a critic of the governor. DeSantis justified his removal in part over pledges Warren signed that said he wouldn’t prosecute crimes related to abortion and transgender health care.

A federal judge in January concluded that DeSantis had violated the First Amendment as well as the Florida Constitution when he ousted Warren, but that the judge did not have the authority to reinstate him. Warren is still fighting his ouster in a federal appeals court and the Florida Supreme Court.

“Politicians who are willing to break the law to get votes or applause are extremely dangerous to our nation,” Warren said in a statement this week.

Some Tampa Bay area school board members were similarly surprised when they learned earlier this year that their names were on a list of people whom the governor was targeting for the 2024 elections for failing to protect students from “woke ideologies.” Several previously told the Tampa Bay Times that they were especially shocked because they are aligned with DeSantis on some issues.

“Right now, I’m probably the most fiscally conservative person on the board,” said Nadia Combs of the Hillsborough County School Board, whose name was on the list.

DeSantis also has an open disdain for the mainstream news media, which he has called the “guard of the nation’s failed ruling class.” He held a news conference in April 2021 to dispute a “60 Minutes” segment that alleged his administration gave Publix special access to COVID-19 vaccines, calling it a “smear.” Earlier this year, he suggested that the state change defamation law to make it easier to sue news outlets, an idea that has since drawn concerns even from conservative media and has stalled in the Legislature.

In 2019, DeSantis ostracized Susie Wiles, who helped lead his first campaign for governor, after he and his allies suspected her of being insufficiently loyal and blamed her for leaked information. In recent stump speeches, DeSantis has referenced the people who’ve been cast out of his orbit, saying he wanted to ensure anybody who was “bringing any other agenda” would be shown the door. Wiles is now working for former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis’ tangle with Disney has been a crowd-favorite applause line at some of his recent cross-country rallies, and his fans have sported “DeSantisLand” T-shirts and flags, sometimes with an accompanying picture of the entire U.S. The Disney fight also helped DeSantis generate tens of thousands in out-of-state grassroots donations in a matter of days last year, and is the subject of an entire chapter of his recent book.

Just months after he suspended Warren and after frequently pummeling Disney in his “Free State of Florida” campaign speeches, DeSantis was reelected in November by a landslide. But lately, as his fight with Disney has reemerged in the news (and he has endured sustained attacks from Trump and his allies) the political upside has become less clear, as some polls have shown him wavering.

Ken Griffin, a billionaire investor and DeSantis megadonor, said last year he didn’t approve of the move to go after Disney’s special taxing district because it could “look like retaliation,” according to Forbes. (Griffin is reportedly still supporting DeSantis for 2024.) More recently, DeSantis’ likely primary opponents have bashed him over the Disney feud.

“Where are we headed here now that if you express disagreement in this country, the government is allowed to punish you?” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday. “To me, that’s what I always thought liberals did, and now all of a sudden here we are participating in this with a Republican governor.”

In higher education, DeSantis-led efforts to overhaul the progressive New College, crack down on college diversity initiatives and weaken professor tenure have also made some faculty members afraid, said Geveryl Robinson, a vice president and faculty liaison for the Black Faculty and Staff Association at the University of South Florida. She said there’s been an uptick in people declining faculty job offers as candidates shy away from the state.

“A lot of faculty and staff are afraid to speak out,” said Robinson, who is also an assistant professor. “When people are attacked … they’re either going to fight back or retreat. I think there’s a lot of retreating because a lot of people feel hopeless.”

Allies aren’t exempt

In the early stages of DeSantis’ first term, when he was still new to the statewide political scene, he brought some people into his administration who had bashed him on the campaign trail — including Richard Corcoran, who backed his primary rival, and Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who supported DeSantis’ general election opponent. But this conciliatory approach was replaced by combativeness as DeSantis skyrocketed to national prominence during the pandemic, amassing political capital along the way.

DeSantis now often breaks from typical deal-making traditions in Tallahassee. Top Republicans haven’t been spared.

Lawmakers were debating congressional redistricting maps approved by Republican leadership last year when the governor, who preferred versions that would more heavily favor his party, tweeted that he would veto them. “DOA,” he wrote.

A lawmaker read the tweet on the House floor. State Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, the Democratic minority leader, remembers her GOP colleagues looking “stunned.”

She said some Republican lawmakers have privately complained about DeSantis’ tight control of the legislative process.

“It’s all about the Ron DeSantis show. They feel like they are doing the governor’s dirty work,” Driskell said. “With the governor strong-arming these culture war bills … it takes a toll on the culture of (the Legislature) and I’ve heard some lamenting of that.”

Even after lawmakers complied with DeSantis’ wishes and came back to Tallahassee to pass congressional maps drawn by his office, the governor still vetoed some of the Republican leadership’s priority projects in the budget, and cracked a joke about it — while they stood on stage with him.

Still, DeSantis’ domination of policy in the state would not be possible without a compliant Legislature. The GOP’s supermajorities in both chambers and his own strong poll numbers have helped DeSantis push his agenda without many compromises.

Ron Book, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, credited DeSantis with being incredibly effective at pushing through policies that conservatives have wanted for years. He said that DeSantis wouldn’t be able to feel comfortable touring the country for higher office if he wasn’t confident lawmakers would pass his priorities while he was away. (Book is also the father of Sen. Lauren Book, the Senate Democratic minority leader.)

“If he was a wimp, they wouldn’t respect him,” he said. “If he was a wimp, he wouldn’t be traveling to Iowa.”

Washington is a “different kettle of fish”

As DeSantis looks to make the case that he should be president, observers note that being the chief executive of the federal government would be quite different from the political reality in Florida.

That’s in part because, unlike Florida, the majorities in each chamber have remained razor-thin for years. Without term limits, members of Congress do not have the sense of urgency that presidents do, and have cultivated brands that are independent of the wishes of the chief executive, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University who specializes in congressional procedure.

Presidents “have to negotiate on every functional thing that needs to occur because the power is rooted in Congress,” Huder said. “The negotiating power is on the other foot.”

Brian Ballard, a DeSantis ally who runs a powerful lobbying firm in both Tallahassee and Washington, agreed that the federal government is “a much different kettle of fish.” But he added that DeSantis has already “reshaped the office” of the Florida governor by expanding what were typically considered his powers — by suspending Warren, interfering in school board races, overhauling the New College of Florida and involving his office in former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse’s appointment as president of the University of Florida, for example.

“Florida has never seen a governor demonstrate and exercise the power of his office like Gov. DeSantis has done,” Ballard said. “I could imagine a DeSantis presidency, should he ever decide to run, being an incredibly powerful one.”