None of four Republican House candidates seeking to represent the Walt Disney World area oppose the law repealing Disney’s special district — but they offered varying degrees of displeasure toward Disney’s politics.
At a Tiger Bay of Central Florida forum, four Republicans — Carolina Amesty, Janet Frevola, Bruno Portigliatti and Mike Zhao — expressed strong faith in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vow that, however his showdown with Disney comes out, the residents of Orange and Osceola counties would not be burdened with the public debts now held by Disney’s special government.
But their statements varied on the deeper issue, the political rhetorical fight between the Governor and the state’s largest employer, which led to unprecedented legislative action against a corporation last spring.
It began in March when the Walt Disney Co. criticized the DeSantis priority legislation known as the “Parental Rights in Education Bill” (HB 1557), which restricts school room discussions of sexual preference and gender identity. Critics dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney, a California company with a longstanding reputation for supporting gay rights, voiced opposition.
That led DeSantis to call the Special Session in April just to strip Disney World of its special government agency, Reedy Creek Improvement District. SB 4C would do so June 1, 2023, giving Disney and state officials a year to work out a new relationship. Remaining issues, which will be on the plate of whomever wins in HD 45, include what will happen to the billion dollars or so of debt held by Reedy Creek.
The quartet — and a fifth Republican who was a no-show at the Tiger Bay forum, Vennia Francois — want to represent the new House district drawn essentially to cover Walt Disney World. HD 45 covers Disney World and the surrounding communities in southwestern Orange and northwestern Osceola, which are home to thousands of Disney employees.
The Democratic nominee in HD 45, Allie Braswell, watched with quiet interest at Tiger Bay as his potential November opponents tried to sort out a complicated Republican relationship with the dominant business in the district, one that has previously showered Republicans with campaign money.
Frevola and Portigliatti picked their words carefully, seeking to not directly condemn the company for any political statements, yet contending there are reasons to revisit the 54-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement District. They called for level-headed discussions.
Portigliatti said corporations all need to be on equal footing. He used the term “adult conversations” — to resolve differences and harm no one.
Amesty and Zhao went right for the rhetorical underpinnings of SB 4C, charging that Disney needs to drop its political expressions.
Zhao vowed to work with DeSantis to “fight against the woke corporation trying to groom our young children.”
“I will fight against and negotiate with Disney because under this CEO they’ve become woke, they’ve deserted their original mission of Disney, which is a family-oriented, pro-family entertainment,” Zhao said.
Amesty said Disney needs to drop any “indoctrination” education and politics.
She compared Disney’s special government status to exemptions that churches have as nonprofit organizations, and suggested it deserves to lose its special status if it participates in politics, just as churches can lose their nonprofit status.
Disney and its various subsidiaries and political committees have contributed millions of dollars to political campaigns in Florida but have not contributed to anyone in the HD 45 contest yet. Amesty was referring to its broader political statements.
“It’s up to Disney. If they get involved in our education, in our politics, they lose their exemption,” Amesty said.
“Right now it is in the hands of Disney; our Governor has made it very clear,” she said. “I love Disney. I love going to Disney. I live in the area. Disney Springs is great. Just don’t get involved in politics. Don’t get involved in our children’s education. I stand in favor of parental rights in education and I will always protect our little ones. No indoctrination education. Stick to the theme parks.”
Later, Amesty, a private Christian university executive, sought to establish credentials as someone who supports Orlando’s theme parks and tourism sector, urging workforce training for jobs in the industry and declaring, “I will always stand in favor of our tourism industry. I will be an ally to bring more tourism, to bring more growth.”
On that topic — economic development — Frevola, a retired Florida Highway Patrol trooper, called for investments in infrastructure in the area, contending that traffic is choking off economic opportunity.
“We are driving to and from work and we are losing time in our life because of what is happening, specifically in HB 45,” she said. “We also need to be able to bring public safety into that area and make sure that folks are safe when the come to visit Florida.”
Portigliatti, a private Christian university executive, lawyer and businessman, pledged support for the four pillars of conservative economic growth: reduced regulations, lower taxes, workforce training and tort reform.
He also called for protecting funding for tourism marketing. In Orange County, Visit Orlando is funded by the county’s robust tourist development tax, which has been under constant scrutiny by some suggesting that some of it could be redirected to other community needs.
“We have to make sure that TDT dollars are used for that purpose. We can continue to incentivize people to come to the state of Florida to use our parks, and enjoy what we have to offer here,” Portigliatti said.
Zhao, an engineer, called for diversifying the economy by seeking to bring in more high-paying, high-tech business and jobs.
All four gave strong endorsements of constitutional carry.