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DeSantis Enters 2023 With Wind at His Back, Tackling ‘Woke’ Capitalism and Reportedly Set to Compromise With Disney

U.S. News & World Report 12/9/2022 Tim Smart
TAMPA, FLORIDA - JULY 22: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on July 22, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. The event features student activism and leadership training, and a chance to participate in a series of networking events with political leaders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) © (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) TAMPA, FLORIDA - JULY 22: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on July 22, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. The event features student activism and leadership training, and a chance to participate in a series of networking events with political leaders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

PALM COAST, Fla. – When late-season storm Hurricane Nicole followed its predecessor Ian along Florida’s northeastern coast and pummeled the shoreline in early November, Gov. Ron DeSantis wasted no time in springing into action.

Using his emergency powers, DeSantis had state workers spread dozens of dump trucks full of sand in a makeshift dune to allow roads breached by the Atlantic Ocean to reopen within 24 hours of nature having closed them to traffic.

Restoring normal services after a hurricane is the absolute minimum for someone running the Sunshine State, but the speed and efficiency with which DeSantis moved further burnished his reputation as a “can do” politician who does not allow bureaucratic norms to stand in the way of action – whether they emanate from Tallahassee or Washington.

The two-term governor, who ran up an impressive 20-point reelection victory just days before Nicole hit, won national approval for his attempts to buck mandates from Washington during COVID-19 and especially his efforts to keep schools open. Beleaguered residents of New York and other states flocked to Florida during the lockdowns and many decided to stay put.

Now, DeSantis is moving with alacrity on a couple of other fronts to position himself further for the national stage that most political observers believe are leading to his seeking the highest office in the land.

Polls show him as among the top challengers to former President Donald Trump, who has tumbled in recent weeks since announcing his own effort to regain the White House. DeSantis’ $200 million raised for a reelection he was never close to losing shows he would be a formidable contestant in 2024 Republican primaries.

And a Yahoo News/YouGov joint poll conducted Dec. 1 to Dec. 5 and made public Friday shows DeSantis leading Trump by 5 percentage points. The poll was taken following recent negative publicity surrounding the former president over his poor record supporting candidates in the November midterms as well as dining with an avowed white supremacist and also saying in a social media post that he favored setting aside the Constitution and having himself “reinstated” as president.

“He is governor of one of the most diverse states in the country and he’s just won a thumping reelection,” says Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research. But, Ayres notes, paraphrasing former Tennessee governor and senator Lamar Alexander, the jump from running for statewide office to a campaign for the presidency is like going “from eighth grade basketball to the NBA finals.”

DeSantis is making sure he stays clear of the daily chaos that Trump engenders within the party. While other Republicans have tied themselves in knots seeking to comment on Trump’s statements, DeSantis has largely avoided mention of the former president.

When a reporter for Insider asked him about Trump during a visit to Key Biscayne last week, noting Trump was a Florida resident and DeSantis constituent, he replied: "I also got 22 million others … and we like to look out for everybody and say we're focusing on getting things done, doing our job, and that's a great thing to do."

But DeSantis also makes sure that his policies keep the support of the base of Republican voters who provided Trump with his victories on the road to the White House. He has doubled down on his attacks on the “woke” left and its perceived enablers within corporate America.

Michael Binder, professor of political science at the University of North Florida and director of UNF’s Public Opinion Research Laboratory, says that DeSantis knows there are Trump supporters who also like him.

“The last thing you want to be doing is splitting those voters before you have to,” Binder says. “He’s actually handling that quite well.”

In a move likely to sit well with conservatives who dominate GOP presidential primary voting, last Friday the state withdrew $2 billion of its funds from investment firm BlackRock over the company’s avowed commitment to environmental, social and good government investing. Florida joins other red states such as Louisiana and Missouri in the moves.

“Using our cash ... to fund BlackRock's social-engineering project isn't something Florida ever signed up for,” Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer, said. "It's got nothing to do with maximizing returns, and is the opposite of what an asset manager is paid to do.”

Patronis said the state will redirect about $600 million in short-term holdings and another $1.4 billion in long-term securities to other firms by next year.

DeSantis announced in August that the state would fight back against what it termed “woke” capitalism that includes corporate America’s support for social policies like backing LGBTQ employees and committing to climate change goals. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has become a poster boy for so-called ESG investing although its $8 trillion in assets under management are spread widely and include holdings in fossil fuel companies.

“Corporate power has increasingly been utilized to impose an ideological agenda on the American people through the perversion of financial investment priorities under the euphemistic banners of environmental, social, and corporate governance and diversity, inclusion, and equity,” DeSantis said after the state board voted in late August to divest from funds that favor ESG investments.

“He was on the ESG issue early out of the gate” with the resolution by the State Board of Administration, of which DeSantis is a trustee, says Leonard Gilroy, vice president of government reform at the Reason Foundation.

Florida’s move followed a similar step by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and more than a dozen red states have taken similar approaches with their pension funds and other holdings. It’s part of a broader effort by Republicans to demonize the “woke” agenda of the left that is expected to be a core underpinning of the party’s new control of the lower chamber of Congress.

BlackRock said it was “surprised” by Florida’s move, and Fink, speaking at the Deal Book Summit organized by The New York Times last week, said of ESG investing, “I think stakeholder capitalism is not political or woke – I just think it’s capitalism.”

The action follows last year’s publicized spat with Disney, one of the state’s largest employers and also an economic giant that brought more than $75 billion in impact into the state in 2019.

Last April, the Florida Legislature passed and DeSantis signed a law to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special governing arrangement that allows Disney to operate with a degree of autonomy over the entertainment giant’s opposition of a law limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill was widely described by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

But the law’s provisions were set to take place by July 2023. And with the deadline getting nearer, there are reports in Florida that DeSantis and the legislature may try to soften its impact or otherwise limit the financial exposure it could bring to Floridians.

While there is considerable dispute over what it would mean to residents of the counties in which Disney has its properties, many believe Florida taxpayers could well be on the hook for as much as $1 billion in debts now held by Disney. The company provides numerous services to residents and others within its district.

DeSantis, through his spokesperson, disputed those reports, and others who support the measure have pushed back against the notion of any give on the part of the Republican legislature.

“Gov. DeSantis does not make U-turns,” press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement on Twitter following the story that first appeared in the Financial Times. “The governor was right to champion removing the extraordinary benefit given to one company through the RCID. We will have an even playing field for businesses in Florida, and the state certainly owes no special favors to one company.”

But some see the Disney issue as one that DeSantis will want resolved before he takes his own brand of Republican politics on the road next year, especially if it threatens his image as a man who gets things done without fuss.

“If he were literally to do nothing, then you’re opening yourself up to this image of the petulant child,” says Binder. “Florida taxpayers may be on the hook for really serious amounts of money and there’s Republicans that pay taxes in those counties.”

The timing may just work for a compromise, as Disney recently ousted its former CEO Bob Chapek, who spoke out against the classroom education law. In his place, the board brought back former CEO Bob Iger, who while supporting LGBTQ provisions, has been less public about the matter.

One thing is for sure. DeSantis will likely enjoy widespread support in a state that is a must-win for any presidential aspirant. And DeSantis can count on a friendly legislature, firmly in Republican hands, as he further pads his resume with achievements ahead of a campaign for the White House.

The two leaders of the state House and Senate, respectively, have recently endorsed the idea of changing Florida’s “resign to run law” that requires state officeholders to leave their positions if they run for federal office.

The measure was reinstated in 2018, but House Speaker Paul Renner recently told reporters that it was a “great idea” to review the law. And Senate President Kathleen Passidomo echoed the sentiment, saying it was a good idea, according to The Associated Press.

“If an individual who is a Florida governor is running for president, I think he should be allowed to do it,” she said.

Copyright 2022 U.S. News & World Report

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