Blog: Disney World flexing its bicep in Florida elections

Sep 27, 2012

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on September 27, 2012:


Disney World ‘flexing its bicep’ in Florida elections

By Jason Garcia

Walt Disney World has spent nearly $2.5 million on political candidates and causes in Florida so far this election cycle, according to an Orlando Sentinel review of state records, as the giant resort attempts to influence elections from the Keys to the Panhandle.

Disney’s political spending in Florida has ballooned to unprecedented levels: It has spent nearly twice as much money as it had at this same point during the 2010 elections, and it has spent about six times as much as it did during the entire 2008 cycle.

Nearly 90 cents of every dollar that Disney has spent on Florida campaigns in this election has gone to Republican candidates or Republican-leaning interest groups, according to the Sentinel’s analysis. Republicans control the Governor’s Office and Florida Legislature.

 The contributions range from hundreds of $500 donations to individual legislators — many issued through company subsidiaries such as Disney Photo Imaging LLC and Magic Kingdom Inc. — to a single, $250,000 check made out to a committee controlled by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Disney is part of an elite circle of big businesses underwriting campaigns across Florida. Only a handful of companies have spent more than $2 million so far on elections in Florida, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Power & Light.

Disney’s goal? To elect politicians who will support its legislative agenda in the state Capitol — especially those who commit to voting against any plans to allow Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

“Our contribution levels in 2012 reflect increased efforts to support candidates who oppose the expansion of casino gambling in Florida,” Disney spokesman Bryan Malenius said.

The candidates on the wrong end of Disney’s spending say the company is playing hardball.

“It is definitely Disney flexing its bicep,” said Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon who this summer won a bitterly contested primary for a state Senate seat in the Tampa area.

Disney spent tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of Lee‘s opponent, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Tampa. In one instance, Disney wrote a $30,000 check to a committee controlled by a Miami senator who the next day passed $30,000 on to a different group that bought television ads on Burgin’s behalf.

“Disney is betting the farm on trying to block the expansion of gambling in Florida,” said Lee, a former state Senate president making a return to Florida politics. “They’re laying down their marker … to make sure they populate the Legislature with anti-gambling legislators.”

Others say casinos are only part of Disney’s motivation. Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, who lost a tough Senate primary to Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said Disney backed his opponent even though Frishe had the stronger anti-gambling voting record in the state House.

Among many other contributions, Disney gave $105,000 to “Florida Conservative Leadership Fund,” a committee controlled in part by Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, who this week abruptly quit his campaign for re-election after authorities named him as a client in a prostitution ring. Horner’s committee gave $118,500 to an entity known as “Accountability in Government,” which spent heavily on ads promoting Brandes and attacking Frishe.

“What is it they want?” Frishe said of Disney. “If they’re doing all this work now, laying this groundwork, they’re going to come with an ask.”

Disney asks for plenty from the Florida Legislature.

In addition to lobbying against casinos, Disney this year helped persuade lawmakers to substantially increase — to $54 million — state spending on tourism advertising. And it got them to earmark $1 million for incentives for professional soccer teams that hold spring training in Central Florida.

Lobbyists for Disney and for International Speedway Corp. of Daytona Beach also wrote a multimillion-dollar package of tax breaks designed to benefit their sports facilities, including the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World and ISC’s Daytona International Speedway. But their legislation failed to pass amid concerns about its cost and criticism that it was corporate welfare.

The biggest jump in Disney’s political giving this election has come in the form of contributions to fundraising committees controlled by individual lawmakers. Known as “committees of continuous existence,” they allow lawmakers to raise unlimited sums and are more loosely regulated in terms of how the money can be spent.

Disney has poured $890,000 into lawmaker CCEs, up from less than $100,000 during the 2010 elections.

That includes $190,000 to a committee set up by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, set to become Senate president after the 2014 elections, and $155,000 to a committee established by Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, in line to become House speaker in 2014.

“From me, they get nothing” as a result of those donations, Gardiner said. “I’m not influenced by the people who donate to my campaign.”

Dorworth pointed out that he supports legislation to require that companies check an immigration-verification system before hiring workers. Disney opposes the measure.

“People donate because they believe in my political agenda, not so that I will believe in theirs,” Dorworth said.

The biggest single beneficiary of Disney’s largess has been the Republican Party of Florida. Records show Disney has given the state GOP $650,000 so far. That is about three times as much as the $220,000 it has given the Florida Democratic Party.

Disney is also one of the primary backers of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the business-lobbying group whose current chairman is a Disney executive. Disney has given $280,000 to chamber-led political committees, which are spending the money on key legislative races.

For example, the “Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance,” which got the $250,000 check from Disney, is now paying for television ads promoting Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who is in a close race against Democrat Karen Castor Dentel, a public-school teacher from Maitland.

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