A GOP political donor, an evangelical minister who defends Christian nationalism and a co-founder of the conservative Moms for Liberty group are among the new board members chosen by Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District.
DeSantis signed legislation Monday putting the state in charge of the reconstituted special district. He named politically connected Republican allies to serve on a five-member board that handles public works and other government services for Disney World.
DeSantis said the new board will draw on a variety of experiences in law, business and local government. Democrats blasted the picks as unqualified.
“It’s incredibly alarming,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said of the governor’s nominees, describing them as a group of “extremists and Republican operatives” picked based on cronyism and not merits. “He has these extremist culture war demagogues, and Republican Party operatives.”
Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer, will serve as a chairman. Through his Pinehill Capital Partners investment firm, he has donated $260,000 to political campaigns in Florida, including $53,000 to DeSantis and $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.
He chaired Pam Bondi’s successful run for attorney general in 2010.
Garcia’s name also came up during a trial over DeSantis’ ouster of Democratic Hillsborough County State Attorney General Andrew Warren. Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, testified he consulted with Garcia and others as part of a push to take on “woke” prosecutors, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County School Board member, is the wife of Christian Ziegler, the newly elected chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Ziegler co-founded Moms for Liberty, an education group that has called for book banning in public schools. She backed legislation known by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill.
That law limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools sparked DeSantis’ clash with Disney. The entertainment giant issued a statement opposing the law.
Ron Peri, CEO of The Gathering USA ministry and a Windermere resident, has defended Christian nationalism in his lectures. Peri said he views America as being defined by Christianity and that God has blessed America above other nations.
The other two members are Seminole County attorney Michael A. Sasso and Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney from Clearwater.
Sasso is president of the Orlando chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. He serves on the governor-appointed Ninth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, which consists of Orange and Osceola counties. The Judicial Nominating Commission recruits, interviews and certifies nominees for appointment to the circuit court and county courts.
Aungst, the son of a former Clearwater mayor, serves on the Sixth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission.
The new members will likely take a radically different approach than Reedy Creek’s previous board members, said Richard Foglesong, who wrote “Married to the Mouse,” a book on Disney World’s origin story.
“They seem to be cultural warriors,” he said. “It is not clear to me the kind of people he appointed to Reedy Creek board are going feel the need to work collaboratively with the business executives.”
Previously, the district’s landowners elected the Reedy Creek, allowing Disney to handpick the members.
Reedy Creek and Disney officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday. None of the board members could be reached for comment.
DeSantis defended his picks, saying they have experience in law, business and local government.
“We have people who very much want to see Disney be what Walt envisioned,” DeSantis said.
In legislative meetings, Democrats tried to bar the governor’s political donors from serving on the board and require local elected officials be included, but Republicans rejected those amendments. The legislation did bar appointees from having worked in the theme park industry within the past three years.
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Eskamani said the board can potentially shoot down safety measures, road projects and new construction as a way to exert pressure on Disney to end things its members and DeSantis might not like, she said.
“They could say Disney can’t do Gay Days anymore by dragging out zoning for a new project,” Eskamani said.
DeSantis suggested the board could boost firefighter pay, raise more money for transportation projects and guard against COVID-19 restrictions.
In the past, board members have been friendly to Disney. One of the ousted members, Jane Adams, worked in government and public relations for Disney before joining the board. Donald R. Greer — the most senior member — had served since 1975.
Board members are eligible for per diem and travel reimbursement, but they do not receive a salary. Reedy Creek’s name will be changed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Under the new law, the new board members must be confirmed by the Florida Senate, which is solidly controlled by Republicans who support DeSantis.