“Our timing was not ideal,” Diaz said in a statement. “We also acknowledge that in our fight for freedom and fairness, we can always do more. In that spirit, the Florida Democratic Party will choose new dates and venues to hold Leadership Blue. We will share information about new arrangements once we have explored available options.”
LGBTQ supporters and company employees have criticized Disney for not taking an early stance against a “Parental Rights in Education” bill — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” measure by opponents — recently passed by the Florida Legislature that bans classroom instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity for young schoolchildren. Democratic lawmakers staunchly opposed the measure, and Disney didn’t publicly push back against it until the GOP-led Legislature approved it and the company faced enormous pressure to act.
The decision by the party to schedule its fundraiser at Disney outraged many Democrats.
“Disney is on the front page of every newspaper,” said Stephen Gaskill, president of the Florida Democratic LGBTQ caucus who said he was “pissed” when he found out. “It’s just inconceivable that would be unknown to the Florida Democratic Party while planning the event.”
“There are lots of hotels in Florida,” Gaskill said. “There’s nothing magic about this event being in Orlando or at Disney.”
The misstep for Democrats comes at a time when Democrats are already reeling and losing relevance in what used to be one of the nation’s most prominent battleground states. Democrats late last year lost their voter registration edge over Republicans in Florida and have nowhere near the money the GOP has.
The fight within the Florida Democratic Party also highlights just how contentious Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill has become. Opponents of the bill, including President Joe Biden, have condemned the legislation as an attack on LGBTQ students, warning that it could lead students to be bullied or even commit suicide. Proponents, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, argue it gives parents more control and information over their children’s education. There are at least nine other states that are considering similar measures, including Arizona and Tennessee.
Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek in particular has been repeatedly criticized for clumsily trying to handle the fallout over the bill only after its passage despite an uproar among staff and others that the company should publicly denounce the bill. Disney, which has a flagship amusement park in Orlando, employs at least 70,000 people in Florida.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said she understands that Democrats have used Disney hotels in the past because they employ union workers. But she pointed out that even before the recent controversy, most of Disney’s political donations have gone to Republicans in Florida. Disney agreed to halt all political donations in Florida over the “Parental Rights in Education” bill.
“It gives the impression that Florida Democrats are not watching the news,” said Eskamani, who said she would boycott the event as long as it remained at Disney. “Hopefully the party will change the location.”
One Democratic consultant called the decision to hold the fundraiser at Disney — which was first reported by NBC News — a “unforced error” that is placing candidates and donors in an “impossible position.”
Gaskill also pointed out that the event was scheduled in mid-June at the same time when Pride Month celebrations are being held, including a large one planned in Wilton Manors the same weekend. The date of the conference – June 17 through June 19 – also falls on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the freedom of enslaved people at end of the Civil War.
A Disney spokesperson did not respond to questions, including whether or not the company planned to donate hotel rooms and park tickets to Democrats as it has done in the past.
The controversy is another misstep for Diaz, whose stewardship of the party was already showing signs of strains at the end of his first year on the job.
Diaz spent his first year trying to wipe out substantial debt that he inherited. It was a financial situation so dire that it prompted layoffs at the start of 2021. He did, however, go on a hiring spree late last year intended to boost field operations well in advance of the elections.
Last December, the party scheduled a “Leadership Blue” fundraiser at the same time most Senate Democrats were headed to Las Vegas. The party also did not widely publicize that House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement helped Joe Biden’s campaign, was the keynote speaker so hardly any media showed up.
Two Democrats running for governor on Tuesday also weighed in on the brewing conflict. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) tweeted that “it’s prudent the party consider other options” while Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called on others in the party to boycott the event.
“Disney’s response to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill was tepid, short-sighted, and disappointing at best,” Fried said in a statement. “If the Democratic Party keeps the Leadership Blue Gala at Disney, and Disney leadership does not do more to stand against hate, I will not attend.”