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Did DeSantis miscalculate in attacking Disney?

That depends on what DeSantis's strategic objectives are? To my mind, DeSantis studied Trump's 2016 presidential win which was the result of his exploiting "border security" and decided to develop a presidential campaign based on "anti wokeness". Ergo, DeSantis is more concerned with his presidential "brand" than on how Disney will benefit his state (one way or the other).

The danger to Disney is that DeSantis is willing to throw them and the state under the bus to elevate his national stature. Disney has a lot to lose, long game or not. Getting into a fight with the Gov over trans programming for under 8-year-olds is a fool's errand.

DeSantis’s Miscalculation: ‘Disney Is Playing the Long Game’

The conflict between Florida’s governor and Iger’s entertainment giant has turned into a drawn-out legal battle. Some Republicans question the strategy.

By Arian Campo-Flores and Robbie Whelan, WSJ

April 27, 2023 1:24 pm ET

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested it would be a short fight when he first threatened to strip Walt Disney Co. of the power to govern its magic kingdom of theme parks, waterslides and hotels around Orlando.

A year later, Mr. DeSantis is enmeshed in a drawn-out conflict with the entertainment giant that has shifted from the political realm into the courts, with no end in sight.

The battle pits Mr. DeSantis, a rising Republican star and likely 2024 presidential candidate, against Robert Iger, a heavyweight chief executive who recently took back the reins from Bob Chapek at the company he previously ran for 15 years.

Mr. Iger’s return has given Disney’s lobbyists more confidence they can persevere in the fight, according to people who work with them, and legal experts say it will be a long one.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers in the GOP-dominated legislature, which has backed the Republican governor, say they have begun to question Mr. DeSantis’s strategy on Disney.

Mr. DeSantis signed laws in the past year meant to undermine Disney’s control of the special tax district encompassing Walt Disney World Resort after the company spoke out against a state measure that prohibits classroom instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation for children through third grade.

He handpicked a new board, mainly composed of donors to his campaign and others involved in the state Republican Party apparatus, to oversee the district, but before members were seated, Disney struck a last-minute deal with the existing board—which it had effectively controlled—that preserved some of its authority over the land housing its Florida theme parks.

On Wednesday, Mr. DeSantis’s new board voted to declare void those last-minute agreements. Disney then sued Mr. DeSantis, members of his new board and other officials in federal court. The lawsuit alleges the Republican governor was conducting a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”

“At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the company said in a statement announcing the filing of the lawsuit. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop.” Disney declined to comment further.

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis, said, “We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state.” She added, referring to Disney, “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”

The litigation could drag down the growth plans of one of Florida’s top employers, as well as the presidential prospects of a popular governor who has made taking on “woke corporations” one of his calling cards.

“Disney is playing the long game,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican former state senator who previously worked closely with Disney’s top Florida lobbyist. “Disney has been here for 50 [years]. They’re not going anywhere.”

Mr. DeSantis, who won re-election last year in a landslide and has cultivated a brand as a winner of policy fights, faces some erosion in support among GOP state lawmakers as he struggles to get the upper hand on Disney. Several members of Florida’s congressional delegation have endorsed former President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Some Republicans privately said Mr. DeSantis’s approach is increasingly looking like a personal vendetta and heavy-handed government intervention into the affairs of one of the state’s largest employers. Publicly, cracks are emerging.

“Disney is really acting in a way that we’d expect most free-market actors would act. Companies always push back and find a way to respond to aggressive regulation,” said Republican state Rep. Spencer Roach, who represents a district in the Fort Myers area. “I think the governor is right, but I’m not sure at this point that the public is with us, and I would urge the governor to be cautious as he goes on with this fight with Disney.”

Disney’s economic weight gives the company some leverage. Mr. Iger said at the company’s annual meeting this year that the company plans to invest $17 billion in Florida over the next decade and create 13,000 new jobs. Any attempt to thwart those plans, he said, is “not just antibusiness but…anti-Florida.” The company also has deployed allies in the amusement park industry to give interviews to local news outlets highlighting its safety record at the resort, and has retooled its lobby operation.

Dan Daley, a Democratic member of the Florida House representing a district in Broward County, said that he recently ran into a Disney lobbyist in a restaurant on South Adams Street, a popular row of bars and eateries near the Florida Capitol, who indicated that Disney “is ready to fight,” he said.

“There’s a marked difference between Disney under Bob Iger and under Bob Chapek,” Mr. Daley said. He said that he was impressed by Mr. Iger calling Mr. DeSantis’s actions antibusiness, and thinks that confidence has trickled down to the company’s lobbyists as well.

“Iger is a mammoth and he’s not going to back down,” Mr. Daley said.

Many Democratic state lawmakers, who believe the governor has overplayed his hand, assail Mr. DeSantis for fixating on the fight with Disney at the expense of other pressing issues facing the state, such as lack of affordable housing and rising homeowner insurance premiums.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a press conference at the Reedy Creek Administration Building in Lake Buena Vista this month. PHOTO: PAUL HENNESSY/ZUMA PRESS

“It’s getting to be too much,” said state Sen. Lauren Book, the Democratic minority leader. “There’s other stuff we have to pay attention to.”

Some Republican state lawmakers who defended Mr. DeSantis’s moves against Disney last year have now gone quiet. Others have cheered him for taking on the company and what they consider its support for left-wing gender ideologies and unfair benefits from the tax district.

“In Florida, you do not get to indoctrinate our kids or write your own rules,” said Republican state Rep. Carolina Amesty, who represents a district in the Orlando area, in an appearance with the governor last week.

The confrontation began last year over the Parental Rights in Education law, the measure barring instruction on gender and sexuality, which opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” As controversy over the legislation grew, Mr. Chapek called Mr. DeSantis, the governor wrote in his recently released book, “The Courage to Be Free.”

“Do not get involved with this legislation,” Mr. DeSantis said he advised Mr. Chapek. Mr. Chapek didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Disney, under heavy pressure from some employees, spoke out against the proposed bill, arguing that it would harm LGBT youth and teachers. Mr. DeSantis signed the bill into law a year ago, and Disney said it would work to get it repealed. (The state board of education recently approved an expansion of the ban to older grades.)

The governor responded by working with GOP legislative leaders on a bill that would end the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax zone near Orlando that governs the land housing Walt Disney World Resort and was effectively controlled by the company. The effort was limited to a tight circle.

“We need the element of surprise—nobody can see this coming,” Mr. DeSantis told the House speaker, according to his book.

In February, Mr. DeSantis signed into law another measure that overhauled the district, renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and authorized him to oust the governing board and appoint five new supervisors, all of them his political allies.

Just weeks before the new board was seated, Disney secured agreements with the old board that locked in land development approvals for the next 30 years that allow Walt Disney World to expand its theme parks and resorts. It did so in a public meeting that was twice advertised in a local newspaper, but only after the new board took over did members learn what the company had done.

The new board chairman, Martin Garcia, said he got a call late one Friday night from the district’s general counsel, who said, “You’re not going to believe what I found.” The lawyer told him he had discovered documents related to the last-minute agreements that gutted much of the new board’s power, according to Mr. Garcia, who recounted the exchange at the board meeting Wednesday.

Disney has lately taken a low-key approach with Florida policy makers, according to people familiar with its lobbying operation. The company’s government affairs team in Tallahassee has long had lobbyists with a deep list of contacts from both political parties to advance the company’s agenda, including on environmental issues and policies related to technology regulation. The company flexed its muscle to secure a carve-out from a 2021 social-media law aimed at protecting users from censorship.

In the past, the company’s lobbyists acted as though they were in the driver’s seat on many policy issues and could be dismissive, the people said. Now, the company’s lobbyists refrain from engaging assertively with policy makers, and instead use surrogates to promote their point of view, they said.

Disney’s government affairs team in Florida didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers who have met with the company’s lobbyists in recent weeks said their strategy amounts essentially to lying low, providing feedback on other legislation that affects the company through business associations and having fewer meetings than usual with lawmakers.

Two of Disney’s top in-house lobbyists in Florida haven’t filed any notices of appearance with the state House of Representatives—required to lobby on any issue or bill before the chamber—in 2023, according to disclosure data. In the three previous years, they together filed 91 notices of appearance.

A lawmaker who has spoken in recent weeks to Leticia Adams, one of Disney’s senior lobbyists in Florida, said that despite the fight, the company would try to maintain good relationships in the state house. Ms. Adams said they still have a business to run and employees to take care of, according to the lawmaker. Ms. Adams couldn’t be reached for comment.

On Wednesday, the Florida Senate passed a land-use bill with an amendment that would cancel the February land development approvals and other agreements. An identical amendment is advancing in the House and expected to pass. If it is signed into law, the move is almost certain to face an immediate legal challenge, lawmakers and legal experts said.

“The amendment is unconstitutional on its face,” said Mr. Brandes, the Republican former state legislator. “My sense is, this is coming from the governor having been totally caught off guard and the recognition that he looks bad, like he’s not winning, so now he’s totally out for vengeance.”

Separately, at the Wednesday meeting of the oversight board, supervisors declared the February agreements invalid and unenforceable. Attorneys for the board previously argued that the prior board failed to abide by necessary procedures in reaching the agreements, and that the nature of the agreements themselves make them illegal and unconstitutional.

“Florida’s going to try to argue that they are simply enforcing procedural laws and trying to eliminate a corporate giveaway,” said Stuart Benjamin, a First Amendment scholar at Duke University School of Law.

Juan-Carlos Planas, a former Republican lawmaker who has taught law school courses about Reedy Creek’s legal structure, said the law favors Disney. In his view, the new board has no legal standing to declare the agreements void and can’t undo the actions of the previous board.

“I don’t see how Disney loses,” Mr. Planas said.

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