TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Walt Disney Co. is suspending its political donations in Florida after the company’s CEO received huge blowback for not using Disney’s vast influence in the state to try to quash a recently passed Republican bill that would prevent teachers from instructing early grades on LGBTQ issues.
The bill has sparked a spat between Florida’s tourism giant and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who accused the company of being friendly with communist China.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek on Friday afternoon posted a statement online and sent an email to employees saying the company was wrong to stay silent on the issue before the Republican-dominated Legislature passed what opponents have dubbed the "Don’t Say Gay" bill.
Republican lawmakers had argued that parents, not teachers, should be the ones talking to their children about gender issues during their early formative years. The bill bars instruction on "sexual orientation or gender identity" in kindergarten through grade 3.
DeSantis, who indicated support for the measure, is now facing calls to veto it during the two weeks he has to do so, but is pushing back against the pressure.
Chapek said the bill was a challenge to human rights and apologized for not acting sooner. Meanwhile, DeSantis sent a campaign fundraising email that said, "Disney is in far too deep with the Communist Party of China and has lost any moral authority to tell you what to do."
Disney has contributed huge amounts of money to Florida’s political parties and politicians, and has wielded incredible influence on the state’s government.
The governor’s action stunned Republicans and Democrats. The Disney World theme park is a multibillion dollar economic driver for the state. When people think of Florida, they think of oranges, beaches, and Disney.
"The weird hypocrisy of Florida politics right now is DeSantis has been happy to take Disney’s money, but to pass a bill that’s anathema to the values of their customers and their institution," said Rick Wilson, a political operative who has supported Republicans in the past, but has spoken out against the culture war many Republicans are creating.
A Republican legislator, who didn’t want to be named because the legislator didn’t want to speak publicly against the governor, said that Disney is the number three top contributor to Republican candidates. The company has donated millions to Republicans, both directly to candidates and the party and through political committees that support them in donations that can’t be traced.
The entertainment company, which opened a theme park in China in 2016 and has gained substantial access to that country’s film market, has been accused by some critics of adjusting its content to please China’s Communist leaders and avoid topics they consider sensitive.
Critics of DeSantis argue he’s going against the corporation as part of a culture war because of ambitions to win the Republican primary to be the 2024 presidential nominee.
"It’s really pretty shocking," said former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now a Democratic congressman seeking to challenge DeSantis.
Crist said that the governor has sparred with industries important to Florida, like DeSantis’ legal battle with cruise lines who wanted passengers to show they were vaccinated for coronavirus.
"Now it’s Disney. Who’s next on the hit list for this governor?" Crist said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, whose district includes parts of Disney, also questioned the governor’s attack on Disney.
"This is another strike in the hate agenda that Governor DeSantis is pushing right now," Soto said, adding that the state’s budget is hugely reliant on the sales tax Disney and other theme parks generate for the state.
"Now he’s putting that in jeopardy because he wants to attack LGBTQ families, families that make up a fundamental part of the Disney atmosphere," Soto said.
Disney also has donated to Democrats.
Bob Chapek sends message to employees of The Walt Disney Company
On Friday, Bob Chapek sent the following message to employees of The Walt Disney Company:
"To my fellow colleagues, but especially our LGBTQ+ community,
"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. 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.
"Our employees see the power of this great company as an opportunity to do good. I agree. Yes, we need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all.
"Starting immediately, we are increasing our support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states. We are hard at work creating a new framework for our political giving that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values. And today, we are pausing all political donations in the state of Florida pending this review. But, I know there is so much more work to be done. I am committed to this work and to you all, and will continue to engage with the LGBTQ+ community so that I can become a better ally. You will hear more about our progress in the coming weeks.
"I truly believe we are an infinitely better and stronger company because of our LGBTQ+ community. I missed the mark in this case but am an ally you can count on—and I will be an outspoken champion for the protections, visibility, and opportunity you deserve."