Saturday, December 3, 2022

Disney's "Woke" Leader Returns, Which Doesn't Bode Well for DeSantis

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been some developments in the whole story about DeSantis vs Disney. First of all, Disney's board of directors fired their current CEO, Bob Chapek, and rehired the guy who preceded him in that position, Bob Iger. I didn't pay much attention to that news until I saw this tweet from Christopher Rufo (the right winger who is central to their culture wars). 

My first thought was that this could provide the excuse Gov. DeSantis needs to get out of the mess he created with Disney. He could claim that, with new leadership, it's time to bury the hatchet. That would solve the problem of Disney's $1 billion in bond debt falling on Florida taxpayers if he follows through with revoking the company's special district status.

Yesterday a report in the Financial Times confirmed my suspicions. It is titled, "Florida prepares U-turn on Disney’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ punishment." Apparently they got the scoop from one of the Florida Republican legislators who wrote the initial bill.

[S]tate lawmakers are working on a compromise that would allow Disney to keep the arrangement largely in place with a few modifications. Some believe the return of Bob Iger as CEO last month will help pave they way for a resolution, according to people briefed on the plan.

Randy Fine, the Republican lawmaker who drafted the law to end Disney’s control over the 25,000-acre Reedy Creek property, said that Chapek’s removal from executive office last week improved the chances that “something will get sorted out” over the district.

You have to read to the 12th paragraph of that story to hear about the $1 billion in bonds - which the Financial Times notes as an aside. The emphasis is all on the idea that Iger will be more open to compromise.

That story prompted me to do a little digging to learn more about Chapek and Iger. The latter stepped down from his position as CEO of Disney in 2020, after 15 years of running the company. Chapek only ran the company for two years before being replaced by his predecessor. 

The Florida "don't say gay" bill was passed on March 8, 2022 and signed by DeSantis on March 28 - all during Chapek's term as CEO. As the bill was being discussed, Iger tweeted this in February:

During an interview on CNN a couple of weeks later, Iger said this about that tweet. 

“A lot of these issues are not necessarily political,” Iger told CNN+ host Chris Wallace. “It’s about right and wrong. So, I happen to feel and I tweeted an opinion about the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. To me, it wasn’t about politics. It is about what is right and what is wrong."

Chapek refused to take a stand and sent this email to employees on March 7th, the day before the bill was passed. 

“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” said the Disney exec in an email sent out to staff this morning. “Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame,” Chapek added. “Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”

In response to that message, Disney employees began to protest, staged walkouts, and created a website aimed at their boss called whereischapek.com. The CEO knew he had a big problem on his hands, so he reached out to DeSantis asking the governor to put a pause on the legislation and sit down in a meeting with himself and Disney officials representing the LGBTQ community. In a message to shareholders, Chapek indicated that DeSantis had agreed. 

But the meeting never happened. That's when Chapek finally spoke out publicly and Disney took at stand against the "don't say gay" bill. 

But the phone call from Chapek seemed to motivate DeSantis. The day after it took place, Fox News suddenly found themselves in possession of this video:

Thus began DeSantis's war on Disney. By April, the governor had signed a bill revoking the corporation's special tax status. Here's how Michael Kranish described the set-up:

The conflict also highlights the careful political calculus of DeSantis, who had previously said little publicly about gay rights issues.

“When Disney stumbled, DeSantis pounced,” said a person familiar with the episode who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. “They served it up to him on a silver platter.”

We'll probably never really know how big of a role all of this played in Chapek getting fired. But I assume that it was a major factor, as this paragraph from the Financial Times article indicates:

Iger’s full-throated opposition to the legislation, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, put pressure on Disney to reverse course this spring and come out against the bill after initially refusing to take a stand. The vacillation helped fuel a sense Chapek was struggling to make big calls as CEO.

That vacillation is what DeSantis saw...and pounced on. 

Meanwhile, Iger (who is actually responsible for Disney's messages about diversity and inclusion) is continuing to make his position perfectly clear. Here's what he said recently during a discussion with Disney employees:

“This company has been telling stories for 100 years, and those stories have had a meaningful, positive impact on the world, and one of the reasons they have had a meaningful, positive impact is because one of the core values of our storytelling is inclusion and acceptance and tolerance, and we can’t lose that,” Iger said Monday.

For his part, DeSantis is denying the recent report in the Financial Times. A spokesman said that the governor "does not make U-turns" and that a plan for dealing with the revocation of Disney's special status is "in the works." One would have thought that a governor who "knows how to get things done" would have come up with a plan before pressuring the legislature to pass something this reckless. But let's wait and see what he can conjure up after-the-fact.

All I know is that, going forward, Florida's governor will be dealing with a whole different breed of corporate CEO. If this boils down to a battle between DeSantis and Iger, my money is on the latter. 

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