19
Jun
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Florida’s Mouse Behind the Curtain

No company guards its squeaky clean image more fiercely than Disney. The company is generally low-key when it comes to political wrangling and has earned a reputation as a stellar citizen through its generous charitable giving in Florida.

So it was jarring to see the company name attached to the scandal known as “Textgate” in the Magic Kingdom’s home in Orange County, Florida. Behind the controversy was a multimillion dollar question: Should employers in all but the state’s smallest businesses be required to pay their workers for sick time off? In the tourist economy in metro Orlando, where median pay tends toward rock bottom in national rankings, a grass-roots group in 2012 collected the 50,000 signatures needed for a vote to mandate such payments. It’s a benefit taken for granted in most of the Western world, but typically unavailable in America to the sort of low-paid service workers who staff the Orlando-area hotels, restaurants and attractions visited by more than 60 million tourists a year.

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With the requisite signatures in hand, all that was needed was a ministerial vote by the county commission to place the sick leave referendum on the November ballot. Disney and its allies had other plans. During a public hearing on the matter, text messages began to fly between commissioners, Disney corporate lobbyist Sharon Smoley, and other businesses with an interest in defeating the sick leave measure. Most of the texts were deleted and unrecoverable, but Smoley told investigators her 65 deleted messages with three commissioners primarily concerned how the meeting was going and how they were holding up.

But not all of the texts were lost. Mayor Teresa Jacobs asked for and got direction from a partner at the BakerHostetler law firm, which has ties to Disney. “This is so bizarre. Pls help me with a written explanation of my position. This is most distressful to me,” Jacobs wrote to BakerHostetler attorney Kevin Shaughnessy, in texts published in the Orlando Sentinel. Shaughnessy, at some point, texted back, “Then take a break stating you want the County Attorney to review the NEW (ballot) language and you and your colleagues want to study it too and you need to determine what we can and cannot do with the new language.”

Jacobs voted against the delay, but she was in the minority: By a 4-3 vote, commissioners voted to put the question on hold. In an email to a reporter that later became part of a local prosecutor’s investigation, longtime Orange County GOP Chairman Lew Oliver took credit for lining up the votes and writing the script for the motion to delay.

The delay gave Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Scott time to bury paid sick leave in a new state law blocking local regulation of wages and benefits. A Florida court later ruled that the commission violated the county charter by failing to place the measure on the ballot. Four commissioners and the mayor agreed to pay $500 fines to settle with the prosecutor who found that they violated Florida’s public records law when they deleted the exchanges with Disney and others during the meeting.

Disney did nothing illegal. The company handled the matter in the same way it deals with casino gambling or gay rights or myriad issues that touch its vast kingdom: speaking softly and carrying a big stick. But this is a state weighted down by a growing class of working poor who sometimes live in cars, and where Gov. Scott shows up for photo-ops at convenience store openings to brag about his jobs program. And when you’re in the business of promising fairy-tale endings and dreams that come true, the optics are bad.

“The fact we have some of the lowest wages in the country is in large part because we have Disney, which sets the tone for how others pay and treat their employees,” says petition drive leader Stephanie Porta, director of Organize Now, a liberal group.

Or, as Richard Foglesong, political science professor at Rollins College and author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, puts it, “It exposed their hand as a self-aggrandizing business corporation, belying their warm-puppy image as purveyor of fantasy and fun.”

Disney, while understandably declining to address the criticism regarding its position on paid sick leave, disputes Foglesong’s characterization. “We are active in the public policy arena on issues that are important to our company,” says Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler. “And we support candidates who support pro-growth and pro-tourism policies in Florida.”

For sure, it was a rare case of Disney, with its deep bench of ingenious “imagineers” and relentlessly on-message publicists, allowing anything to disturb the mirage of The Most Magical Place on Earth.

Bare-knuckle political brawling and Disney are not usually paired in the headlines around the state. Disney is the 800-pound mouse protecting its cheese in the backrooms of city hall and state government. And, like the fuzzy rodent, it is typically quiet.

“A lot of things that Disney is able to do, you really don’t see,” says John Morgan, a Democratic powerhouse and businessman whose interests sometimes conflict with Disney’s. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz. You really don’t know who is behind the curtain.”

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Walt Disney World is the biggest player in the state’s $76 billion tourism industry, and the No. 1 amusement park by attendance in the world. Florida and Disney—or, Orlando and Disney—are synonyms to many people around the world.

Disney directly employs 74,000 people in Central Florida, and pegs the Orlando resort’s economic impact at $18.2 billion, or 2.5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, based on 2009 data.
The company gave back to the community $37.9 million in cash and in-kind donations in 2014 in Central Florida alone.

Hospital wings, performing arts theaters and many smaller Orlando projects have benefited not just from the company’s cash but the unique creative talents that an entertainment giant has to offer.

“They wear a 24-hour halo because of all the good they do for so many,” says Morgan, who calls Disney the region’s best corporate citizen. And this is from a man who built a personal injury law empire in Orlando out of a 40-year-long rage at Disney’s treatment of his brother, formerly a resort lifeguard, who broke his neck during a rescue dive.

Disney’s sheer size and charitable giving translate naturally into goodwill and clout in the political arena.