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Florida Democrats reverse course on Disney fundraiser amid LGBTQ education bill fight

The party previously planned to hold a gala at Disney World as some Disneyland workers planned a walkout to protest the company’s response to the bill.

Under pressure from LGBTQ members and gubernatorial candidates, the Florida Democratic Party said Tuesday it was moving a major fundraising event from Disney World and choosing a new date for the gathering.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz acknowledged it was bad timing to announce the Florida Blue Gala this week as Disney workers considered a walkout in solidarity with the LGBTQ community over state legislation to prohibit schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gay rights activists and Disney workers said they felt the influential company did too little to oppose the bill as it worked its way through the Legislature.

The gala had been scheduled to take place during Pride Month on June 18, a day before Juneteenth, which commemorates the freeing of slaves, and shortly ahead of Father’s Day.

“Our timing was not ideal. We also acknowledge that in our fight for freedom and fairness, we can always do more,” Diaz said in a statement late Tuesday. “In that spirit, the Florida Democratic Party will choose new dates and venues to hold Leadership Blue. We will share information about new arrangements once we have explored available options.”

NBC News first reported that the party’s LGBTQ+ caucus was calling for a boycott of the event if the party refused to shift venues.

“The messaging and timing couldn’t be any poorer,” said Stephen Gaskill, the head of the party’s LGBTQ+ caucus, which has chapters in 20 Florida counties.

“This is the last place the Florida Democratic Party should be holding a fundraiser — especially during Pride Month,” he said before Diaz’s reversal. “We should not be at Disney this year.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a gubernatorial candidate who is the lone statewide elected Democrat, had pledged to skip the gala if it were held at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.

“I am calling on the Democratic Party of Florida to identify other possible options for the Leadership Blue Gala, currently slated to take place in the middle of Pride Month, and at the beginning of Juneteenth,” she said in a statement earlier Tuesday.

“Disney’s response to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill was tepid, short-sighted, and disappointing at best,” Fried added. “If the Democratic Party keeps the Leadership Blue Gala at Disney, and Disney leadership does not do more to stand against hate, I will not attend.”

The campaigns of Fried’s competitors in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and state Sen. Annette Taddeo, initially declined to comment.

Crist later tweeted that, “given the timing and conversation going on right now at Disney, it’s prudent the party consider other options.”

Both Fried’s campaign and Gaskill said they had relayed their concerns to the state party’s executive director, Marcus Dixon. Gaskill said Dixon acknowledged the poor timing of the gala and the announcement but said the party had limited venues to host the event.

Dixon didn’t reply to return calls or text messages for comment. A spokesperson for Florida-based Walt Disney World couldn’t be reached for comment.

One of the Legislature’s three openly gay Democrats, Sen. Shevrin Jones, was hesitant to criticize Disney outright, because, he said, the company had worked with him behind the scenes to try to stop the legislation. But he acknowledged that there were angry Democrats and members of the LGBTQ community.

“There’s bad timing with this,” he said before Diaz’s statement. “I think we need to go back and re-examine this.”

The LGBTQ education bill is the most recent product of a culture war centered on how children are taught about topics like race and sexuality in schools. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Legislature have seen the issue as fertile ground to pass crackdowns on schools teaching about race, gender and sexual orientation.

Democrats and educators have said the legislation is overreaching and discriminatory — and unnecessary, because, in most cases, those topics aren’t being taught in Florida schools. Republican lawmakers say they’re just being proactive and stepping in before it becomes an issue.

The internal Democratic feud over the gala marked the first time the party hasn’t been united in response to the so-called “parental rights” legislation, which it branded as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — although the legislation wouldn’t explicitly ban teachers or students from using the word.

The legislation also divided Disney — Florida’s largest employer and one of its most politically influential corporations — during the Legislature’s winter lawmaking session when former Disney CEO Bob Iger took a public stand against the bill as his successor, Bob Chapek, was initially silent.

Chapek later took a stand against the bill, apologized for not speaking out and announced that the company would pause political donations in Florida. DeSantis then criticized Disney as a “woke corporation.”

On Monday night, a Twitter account representing Disneyland workers in California intensified the internal pressure on the company by announcing that “Cast Members who do not feel safe to fully walkout tomorrow are being told they cannot even wear pride/trans Mickey pins to show support. Standing in stark contrast to the words of ‘inclusion’ spoken by Chapek today in the town hall.”

A Florida Democratic consultant, who works with LGBTQ candidates and didn’t want to go on record criticizing the party, said the Leadership Blue issue was “a fiasco,” adding: “It’s a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with the party. It’s like no one is paying attention.”

Another consultant, who also didn’t want to criticize the party publicly, said: “The party is not raising money. We’re losing in voter registration. And then this happens. It’s like the Keystone Kops.”

Gaskill, the head of the party’s LGBTQ+ caucus, said it was important to send a message to the company.

“Disney is under fire because they’re the large employer in the state. They spend about $2 million lobbying with 67 lobbyists registered in the state, and they’re mainly contributing to Republicans who are writing this anti-LGBTQ legislation,” he said. “Disney is under fire internally from its own employees. That’s where this started. They had a responsibility to be a better corporate citizen. They’re facing it. But they’re not fixing their problem.”