More Florida Republicans who dished out big bucks to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election bid have been appointed to powerful public jobs—this time on the revamped board of a special tax district that oversees the Walt Disney Company.
DeSantis announced Monday that Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer, was appointed to the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District—previously named the Reedy Creek Improvement District—just a year after his private investment firm, Pinehill Capital, cut a check to DeSantis’ campaign for $50,000.
Garcia will now join four other DeSantis allies—also appointed Monday—in replacing senior Disney employees on the district's board, the latest bout in DeSantis’ clash with the entertainment giant since it opposed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in 2022.
The special district had allowed Disney to act as its own government for over five decades, controlling everything from land use to running its own fire department, and saving itself millions in taxes annually.
Now, the district will be at the mercy of DeSantis and his five appointees, as the governor now has the legal power to replace the district’s board unilaterally at his beck and call.
“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said Monday in Central Florida. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”
Joining Garcia on the board is fellow conservative Bridget Ziegler, the wife of the Florida GOP’s chair and co-founder of Moms for Liberty, who also recently donated to DeSantis; Mike Sasso, an attorney who donated over $9,000 to Florida Republican candidates, including DeSantis, last election; Brian Aungst Jr., a Central Florida attorney who specializes in land use law; and Ron Peri, who founded the ministry “The Gathering,” which regularly spews nonsense about “Christian Nationalism” and the decaying of local schools.
Ziegler lashed out at Disney last year when it asked a marching band to cover up its Native American logo to perform at Magic Kingdom. The school’s principal didn't oblige, pulling the band from the performance altogether.
“Shameful to see Disney continue to use children as pawns to advance their WOKE political agenda,” Ziegler blasted to Twitter. “Kudos to staff for not kowtowing to their demands.”
Since then, however, Ziegler has become a conservative firebrand in Florida, particularly on issues related to education. She’s repeatedly gone on Fox News to rage about critical race theory and gender ideology in Florida schools, calling the former “anti-American.”
The Florida Senate, which is controlled by Republicans and regularly operates at the behest of DeSantis, will have to confirm the governor’s picks. The board members will not be paid a salary.
If approved, the board will garner the power to manage the special district’s infrastructure, services, taxing authority, and more. DeSantis suggested Monday that the board might push for a say in Disney’s content if the corporation wants its tax-friendly home base to remain as is.
“When you lose your way, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth,” DeSantis said. “All these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”
DeSantis has battled with Disney for nearly a year after Disney opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, officially called the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which barred classroom teachings about sexual orientation and gender identity before fourth grade.
In a statement last March, Disney wrote it was “dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
The stance immediately threw Disney into the heart of the national culture war, with Florida’s attention-hungry governor looking to cash in at its expense. DeSantis declared he’d disband the Reedy Creek Improvement District and axe the savings—namely through tax breaks—it had granted Disney since 1967.
He eventually eased up on that threat, instead settling on pushing a bill through the Florida legislature—during a special session he called this month—that allows him to call the shots and appoint his pals to its board.
On Monday, DeSantis claimed Disney’s defiance against him last year was only a “mild annoyance” and wasn’t the sole reason for his takeover of the special district.
“We believe being joined at the hip with this one California-based company was not something that was justifiable or sustainable,” DeSantis said.
On the heels of a resounding re-election win in November, while a majority of Republicans elsewhere sputtered, DeSantis has become increasingly bold in removing ideological opponents in Florida and replacing them with conservatives.
Most recently, DeSantis vaulted a tiny public school in Sarasota, the New College of Florida, into the national spotlight by throwing out its trustees and replacing them with six of his own. Those board members then fired the university’s president and replaced him with a DeSantis ally, Richard Corcoran, who’s now set to make $699,000—twice as much as his predecessor.
DeSantis followed a similar playbook last summer when he ousted an elected county prosecutor for opposing the state’s 15-week abortion ban, replacing him with someone that local media described as the “opposite” of her predecessor.
While the appointments have become more high-profile, DeSantis has been elevating his donors into cushy government jobs since he was elected in 2018. As he closed out his first term last October, he’d accepted $3.3 million in campaign donations from about 250 people he’d placed in leadership roles, the Tampa Bay Times reported. That was a 75 percent increase compared to former Gov. Rick Scott's first term in office.