A view of the Walt Disney World theme park entrance in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, July 11, 2020.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images
The Florida Chamber of Commerce has counted Disney as an ally for over a decade and helped propel Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ climb up the state’s political ladder.
As the governor and one of the state’s largest employers feud, the powerful business lobbying organization hasn’t taken sides — a move that could risk damaging a relationship with either of the key players in the Sunshine State.
The chamber has deep ties to one of Florida’s largest employers. The former chair of the group’s board was Anthony Connelly, who was once the president of Disney’s Cruise Line. Disney also donated over $400,000 during the 2010 election cycle to a pair of political committees run by the chamber, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Last month, the chamber boasted Walt Disney World donated $100,000 to support STEM education in Florida. It highlighted Rena Langley, an executive at the massive Florida theme park and a longtime member of the chamber’s board.
The chamber has also tried to stay on the good side of DeSantis, who has largely promoted policies that companies support, but nonetheless waged a protracted fight against one of Florida’s biggest economic drivers. The group and many of its board members have also backed the governor’s campaigns, according to campaign finance records and statements reviewed by CNBC.
But as Disney and DeSantis descend into an increasingly venomous fight, the state chamber has not defended or criticized either side. The business lobbying group has yet to weigh in on the dispute on its website.
David Jolly, who while a Republican member of Congress represented Florida’s 13th congressional district, told CNBC the state chamber is among the business groups allied with DeSantis and Disney, putting the lobbying organization into a tough position.
“The entire business and lobbying class are allies of both DeSantis and Disney,” said Jolly, who is now an MSNBC political analyst and has left the GOP. “The chamber’s political division is probably the premier ally of the state GOP in producing polling and research in low-dollar state House seats, and also mobilizes soft dollars around state legislative races.”
The Florida Chamber of Commerce declined to comment. A Disney spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chamber takes no stance on anti-Disney bill
The fight began last year, when Disney spoke out against a Florida bill limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics. Soon after, the governor and his allies targeted the special tax district that has allowed Disney to essentially self-govern its Florida operations since the 1960s.
Disney recently filed a lawsuit against DeSantis, alleging the Republican has waged a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power.” The board of supervisors picked by DeSantis to oversee Disney’s operations voted Monday to sue Disney in response to the company’s litigation.
The feud has trickled into the 2024 Republican primary for president, as DeSantis considers a run for the White House. Former President Donald Trump, who has called DeSantis’ fight with Disney a “political stunt,” is planning to use a similar attack on the Florida governor if he enters the race, according to a person close to Trump who declined to be named in order to speak freely about the campaign’s strategy.
“Trump plans to say, ‘Ron can’t even beat Mickey Mouse in his own backyard, how can he take on China? How can he deal with Russia,'” a close advisor to the former president told CNBC.
A Trump campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As the state’s legislative session wraps up Friday, Republicans have backed multiple pieces of legislation targeting Disney. State legislative records show the chamber has not officially lobbied any of the bills that went after Disney, including HB 9B. The bill, signed by the governor earlier this year, aimed to end the company’s self-governing status.
Republican state Rep. Fred Hawkins, who introduced HB 9B, told CNBC the most he heard from the state chamber was questions from leaders and members of the group “just asking what was in the bill and when it would be filed.”
Records show the Florida Chamber of Commerce has reason not to get involved with the bitter feud despite having a historic alliance to Disney.
The state chamber has made major contributions to a pro-DeSantis political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. Since DeSantis’ 2018 successful run for governor, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has donated $345,000 to the group, according to state campaign finance records.
Almost half those donations came during the 2022 election cycle. The state chamber lists DeSantis’ sweeping win over Democrat Charlie Crist as one of dozens of victories for the lobbying group within Florida during the last election cycle.
The state chamber’s board is also littered with DeSantis allies, some of whom were financiers for DeSantis’ campaigns or appointees to state board positions.
Charles Lydecker, the CEO of insurance company Foundation Risk Partners, was a board member for the Florida chamber as of 2020, according to a tax form filed by the group. Those forms are the most recent publicly available tax documents for the organization.
Lydecker has contributed $135,000 to the pro-DeSantis PAC since 2018. In 2019, DeSantis appointed him to the board of governors of the state university system. Lydecker, listed as a chamber board member on the state university system’s website, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Robert Grammig Jr., an attorney and partner at Holland & Knight, has worked with the state chamber for years while supporting DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaigns. His Holland & Knight profile says he was the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s chairman until 2019 and currently serves as chairman of the lobbying group’s International Business Council.
Florida state campaign finance records show he repeatedly donated toward DeSantis’ two runs for governor, including $50,000 in 2022 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC. Grammig did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., a businessman and son to the late billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga, was also listed as a member of the state chamber board on the 2020 forms. DeSantis announced in 2020 he was appointing Huizenga Jr. to the board of governors of the state university system.
The businessman gave at least $150,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC during the 2022 election cycle, according to records.
It is unclear if Huizenga Jr. is still a state chamber board member. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.