Photo:The theme park giant is funneling money to candidates who back Sen. Joe Negron for Senate President.
Disney places its bets
The theme park giant is funneling money to candidates who back Sen. Joe Negron for Senate president.
On a Tuesday evening in early June, state Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat who represents parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties, held a fundraising reception for her re-election campaign on the 28th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Nearly 50 people signed up for the host committee for the event, including some of the most prominent Democratic politicians and personal injury attorneys in the state.
Also on the list was Adam Babington, a top lobbyist for Walt Disney World.
Disney usually supports Republican candidates in Florida and regularly battles trial lawyers on matters of public policy. Yet the company’s support for Sachs wasn’t a surprise. Disney had backed Sachs two years ago when she and former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) were forced to run against each other, after new political boundaries squeezed both senators into Senate District 34 in south Florida.
Disney was one of Sachs’ biggest supporters that year, giving $415,000 in the fall of 2012 to the Florida Democratic Party, which paid for TV ads, polling and other support for Sachs. Disney, which had never before written a six-figure check to the Democrats, cut three (for $100,000 each) in two weeks at the height of that campaign. Sachs won by 5.6 percentage points.
Now Bogdanoff is back for a rematch this year. And Disney is once again in Sachs’ corner.
Why is the company so hostile to Bogdanoff?
One ostensible explanation is that Bogdanoff once sponsored legislation that would have allowed up to three Las Vegas-style “destination resort” casinos in south Florida. That’s something Disney vehemently opposes, and the company clashed with Bogdanoff on the subject when she was still in the Senate.
But Sachs also supports casinos. And Bogdanoff notes that she has worked closely with Disney lob Byists on other issues, including a bill that Bogdanoff says Disney was “very supportive of” that would have shielded online-travel agencies such as Expedia from having to pay higher taxes on hotel room rentals.
Another explanation for Disney’s opposition to Bogdanoff involves an entirely different race — the contest for the Senate presidency, one of the three most powerful positions in state government. The race, which will determine who will preside over the Senate for the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, will be decided internally by Republican senators within the next two years.
Bogdanoff has pledged to support Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater). And a Latvala presidency is something that Disney seems to want to prevent.
In fact, over the past three years, Disney has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in key legislative races around Florida — either opposing candidates who support Latvala or helping those committed to his chief rival, Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart).
Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger says the suggestion that the company is attempting to influence the Senate presidency race is “deeply flawed.” She declined to elaborate or comment further.
But Latvala believes Disney “absolutely” is trying to stop him from becoming president. “It’s surprising to me that they’ve taken the attitude about me that they’ve taken. Because I frankly don’t know of any instances where I’ve voted against an issue that they’re concerned with,” says Latvala, 62, who served in the Senate from 1994-2002 and returned again in 2010.
“I’m not going to be bullied by Disney,” Latvala adds. “Disney might have a lot of input with a lot of other legislators. But they’re one business in a state with 19 million people and a whole lot of other businesses.”
Negron, 52, declined to discuss Disney’s impact on the presidency battle. In a written statement issued Through a spokeswoman, he says, “I do not believe that third parties or special interests have a place in deciding internal caucus issues such as the Senate presidency.”
In addition to the Sachs-Bogdanoff race, Disney has gotten involved in other legislative races with implications for whether Latvala or Negron leads the Senate. During the 2012 primaries, for example, Disney played a role in a race between two Republican state House members from St. Petersburg for the GOP nomination in Senate District 22 in Pinellas County.
One candidate, Jim Frishe, supported Latvala’s bid for the presidency. Disney became one of the top boosters of Frishe’s opponent, Jeff Brandes. In addition to donating several thousand dollars directly to Brandes’ campaign, Disney gave many times that amount to outside groups that then used the money to help Brandes.
One such group was the “Florida Conservative Leadership Fund,” a committee set up by Rep. Dana Young (R-Tampa) that received $105,000 from Disney during a two-month stretch leading up to the primary election. Over the same period, Young’s group gave $118,500 to another organization that paid for pro-Brandes and anti- Frishe advertisements.
“I called Disney and said, ‘Look, I’m all in for Jeff Brandes. I would like it if you would help me raise money for him,’ ” says Young, who Is now the majority whip in the House. “They provided money. I sent it to a group that wanted to engage in that race.”
Even Young was surprised by how much Disney contributed. “They came in at a much higher level than what I had expected, and I was very pleased,” Young says. She adds that she has no idea what Disney’s motivation may have been. “When you’re raising money, you don’t ask questions. You just say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Casinos don’t appear to have been a factor in that particular race. “I’m way more open to casinos” than Disney is, says Brandes, who says he assumed Disney supported him because he and the company both want lower taxes and limited government. Brandes says he is supporting Negron for Senate president.
Frishe, who now owns a consulting business in St. Petersburg, says he received no response from Disney when he reached out to the company during the campaign to find out why it opposed him. But he says he got a blunt answer from lobbyists for the Florida Chamber of Commerce when he asked them why another business interest — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — was also spending money on Brandes’ behalf. “They said it didn’t have anything to do with me. It was all about the Senate presidency,” Frishe says. Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber, says neither he nor his lobbying Team made such a comment.
Ultimately, the Brandes-Frishe contest became one of the most expensive legislative primaries in the state that year, with Brandes winning both the primary and the general elections.
That summer, Disney also invested in Senate District 24 in Tampa, where it tried to help then-state Rep. Rachel Burgin (R-Tampa) in the Republican primary against former state Sen. Tom Lee (RBrandon), who was attempting a comeback. Disney donated $30,000 to a political committee controlled by Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) — a Negron supporter — who immediately gave the money to another group that spent it on a television ad for Burgin. Disney also bundled money directly to Burgin.
Burgin, who lost the race to Lee, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But she had pledged to support Negron if she had been elected, according to two people familiar with the campaign.
Lee believes Disney’s opposition to him had less to do with him and more with “their perception of how my election might impact their legislative priorities,” says Lee, who is neutral in the Latvala-Negron race — though insiders believe he is more likely to side with Latvala.
Disney has continued to help Negron — or oppose Latvala — since the 2012 elections. The company late last year wrote a $50,000 check to Flores’ committee, which then gave $50,000 to the political committee that Negron is using to finance his presidency bid. Earlier this year, when it appeared a Senate seat in southwest Florida might open unexpectedly, Disney began cutting checks to a Republican state House member who was seen as a likely Negron supporter. And in late July, Disney gave $25,000 directly to Negron’s political committee.
Underscoring Disney’s apparent distaste for Latvala: He is one of just two of the 20 incumbent senators on the ballot this year to whom Disney Had not donated any money as of mid July. (The other is Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, and a Latvala supporter.)
It’s unclear why Disney appears to prefer Negron to Latvala. But a Senate president has absolute power over the fate of legislation: No bill can pass without the president’s blessing, making the president an effective bottleneck for any legislation that Disney might not like. Some lawmakers and lobbyists say Disney has concluded Negron will be less likely than Latvala to allow a bill authorizing casinos to pass the Senate. While both Negron and Latvala declined to discuss their positions on casinos, Negron is generally seen as the more conservative of the two.
Says Lee, who served as Senate president himself from 2004-06: “I think the general perception out there is that, right or wrong, they (Disney) would benefit from a more traditional social conservative, anti-gambling leadership in the Florida Senate.”
Disney’s spending on campaigns has risen from just over $700,000 during the 2008 election cycle to almost $4 million during 2012, making it one of the most politically generous businesses in the state.
Disney spent an estimated $140,000 on three firms to lobby the Legislature in 2009. That grew to an estimated $275,000 on six firms in 2013, with those lobbyists tasked to press state lawmakers on everything from tort reform and corporate taxes to tourism advertising and gambling policy.
“I’m not going to be bullied by Disney. Disney might have a lot of input with a lot of other legislators. But they’re one business in a state with 19 million people and a whole lot of other businesses.” — Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clear water)
“It’s all about the public policy and their view of what is going to serve their own corporate interests long term.” — Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon)