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DeSantis inauguration sponsored by companies he loves to bash

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/18/2023 Isaac Arnsdorf
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with wife Casey and their children, Mason, Madison and Mamie, after the governor was sworn in for his second term Jan. 3 in Tallahassee. © Lynne Sladky/AP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with wife Casey and their children, Mason, Madison and Mamie, after the governor was sworn in for his second term Jan. 3 in Tallahassee.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has built his national profile, and possibly a future presidential run, on challenging major companies on controversial social issues. But some of those same companies and their lobbyists bankrolled his inaugural festivities this month.

Two major fundraisers are lobbyists for Disney, the entertainment giant that DeSantis moved to punish for speaking out against his bill restricting classroom discussions of sexuality. Another inauguration co-chair lobbies for BlackRock, the investment powerhouse that DeSantis’s administration divested of state funds in retaliation for the firm’s social impact standards. Additional listed sponsors included CVS Health and Walgreens, chain pharmacies that DeSantis criticized at a recent news conference on drug prices.

The donations underscore how DeSantis maintains corporate ties even while he works to burnish his image as taking on “woke” corporations. At the federal level, candidates from Barack Obama to Donald Trump have imposed (and evaded) measures to curb the role of lobbyists in inaugural fundraising and festivities. DeSantis’s team opted not to impose such restrictions.

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. One fundraiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on behalf of the governor’s team, defended the approach as an expression of independence.

“When you start saying, ‘I’m only going to take money from people I support,’ I don’t think that’s a good look,” the fundraiser said. “The fairest thing a politician can do is, if someone wants to support their cause they can support their cause, but just make decisions based on philosophy and merit, not who’s a donor.”

DeSantis takes aim at federal government as he is sworn into a second term

To his critics, though, DeSantis’s jousting with corporations looks like an abuse of government power — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), also overwhelmingly reelected and eyeing a presidential run, has called it “big government authoritarianism.” Others say the confrontations only serve to generate culture-wars publicity while still condoning corporate giveaways — putting a fresh, combative spin on the implied pact between big business and social conservatives that has been the linchpin of the Republican coalition since the 1980s “Reagan revolution.”

“DeSantis is not a real populist. He actually allows corporations to get away with a lot as long as they don’t question him,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), an outspoken opponent of corporate tax breaks on the state House’s Ways and Means Committee. “Even when they’re targeted, they walk back with their tail between their legs and write big checks because they only want to maintain close relationships and get their bills and tax breaks passed.”

DeSantis has emerged from his landslide reelection last November as the most highly anticipated potential 2024 challenger to Trump, even topping the former president in some early surveys. The governor is planning to use his state’s upcoming legislative session to pick more fights with big business over data privacy and ethically minded investing, highlighting issues designed to help him in a presidential primary. He revisited the theme in his inaugural speech, calling Florida “where woke goes to die.”

“He showed the world, stay in your lane, do what you do, and don’t get involved in stuff outside your business interests,” said a Republican lobbyist in Florida, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about sensitive client matters. “That’s red meat to Republicans, especially in these times around covid and CRT,” meaning critical race theory.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker/for The Washington Post) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker/for The Washington Post)

The inauguration’s co-chairs — an honor bestowed on top fundraisers who collected more than $1 million — included four of the state’s most prominent lobbyists: Nick Iarossi of Capital City Consulting; Brian Ballard of Ballard Partners; Bill Rubin of Rubin, Turnbull & Associates; and Jeff Hartley of Smith, Bryan & Myers.

Iarossi was an early backer of the governor and has become an especially close associate to a politician who keeps an unusually tight circle. As a lobbyist, he represents companies in DeSantis’s crosshairs.

His client BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, drew DeSantis’s ire for advocating investment strategies that take account of sustainability and climate change, sometimes known in the industry as ESG for environmental, social and governance risks. DeSantis has attacked ESG as something that “sacrifices returns at the altar of the select few, unelected corporate elites and their radical woke agendas.”

In December, Florida’s chief financial officer said the state would withdraw $2 billion from BlackRock’s management to protest the company’s ESG standards. On Tuesday, DeSantis announced additional measures against ESG in the state pension system, specifying that BlackRock and asset managers will make investment decisions based exclusively on maximizing returns. The governor also proposed legislation barring ESG considerations in lending.

Another of Iarossi’s clients, the Tampa Bay Rays baseball club, also lost state money for crossing the governor. In June, he vetoed funding for a new team training facility after the Rays called for gun control and donated to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety in response to the mass killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.

Iarossi also lobbies for PayPal, the online payment processor that DeSantis attacked last year for cutting off accounts linked to far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, who were charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the truckers who shut down Canada’s capital. In proposing bans on “discriminating” based on users’ ideology, the governor said companies “should not be colluding with one another to marginalize people that they have political disagreements with.”

Ballard — who has also been close to Trump and expanded his lobbying operation into Washington during Trump’s presidency — represents Google and Amazon, which have been frequent targets for DeSantis’s attacks on “Big Tech.” DeSantis has pushed to penalize the companies, alongside Facebook and Twitter, for allegedly disfavoring conservative viewpoints and profiting from user data.

“Are consumers going to have the choice to consume the information they choose? Or are oligarchs in Silicon Valley going to make those choices for us?” DeSantis said in 2021. “No group of people should exercise such power, especially not tech billionaires in Northern California.”

Rubin, who has also been close to past Florida governor and potential 2024 candidate Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), lobbies for the Carnival cruise line. DeSantis clashed with the cruise industry over requiring vaccinations to restart operations after the pandemic.

Hartley, along with another sponsor, the Southern Group lobbying firm, represent Disney. When the company, one of the state’s largest employers, publicly opposed DeSantis’s bill restricting LGBTQ discussions in Florida schools (known to its critics as the “don’t say gay” law), he retaliated with legislation eliminating the special tax treatment governing the Disney World theme park in Orlando. The standoff is expected to resurface in this year’s legislative session, with talks focusing on appointments to the board overseeing the district. Disney did not respond to requests for comment.

How Ron DeSantis used Disney's missteps to wage war on corporate America

The complete list of inauguration donors is not yet available because of the state campaign finance reporting schedule, but some of the contributions were disclosed in the Florida Republican Party’s latest report. One of the top-tier sponsors was Florida Power & Light, which gave the party $1 million on Dec. 30. The state utility known as FPL also contributed to DeSantis’s campaign and reached a settlement agreement with his administration to raise rates by almost $5 billion over five years. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Another top sponsor, known as Propel Florida, gave the party $500,000 on Dec. 20. The company has been spending on lobbying and political contributions since 2020 to push data privacy legislation, presented as a check on “Big Tech.”

Other listed sponsors include a subsidiary of Heritage Insurance, at $100,000, and People’s Trust Insurance, at $25,000. Both companies participated in a taxpayer-financed relief program for property insurers signed by DeSantis. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis speaks after his inauguration for a second term on Jan. 3 in Tallahassee. © Lynne Sladky/AP DeSantis speaks after his inauguration for a second term on Jan. 3 in Tallahassee.

The state party also received a $25,000 contribution on Dec. 16 from Walgreens, which appeared as an inauguration sponsor alongside rival CVS Health. DeSantis has been at odds with those companies over vaccines, which he has increasingly vilified, and last week he singled out chain pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers (another of CVS’s business lines) at a media event about prescription drug costs.

“You shouldn’t have to rely on one big corporate chain every time,” DeSantis said at the event.

A Walgreens spokesman said the company supports the inaugurations of incoming governors nationwide on a bipartisan basis. “Walgreens is supportive of initiatives that improve access and transparency to prescriptions and lower patients’ out of pocket costs,” the company said in a statement. “That’s why we look forward to working with Governor DeSantis on this important issue to all Floridians.”

Sponsor Scott Bessent, who gave the state party $50,000 on Dec. 27, previously managed investments for Democratic super-donor George Soros before starting his own fund with an initial investment from Soros of $2 billion. DeSantis has joined other Republicans in portraying Soros as an enemy, such as sending campaign fundraising appeals seeking “immediate support to stop Soros from destroying Florida.”

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