‘Dismayed:’ DeSantis’ Disney district admin rebuked by ‘betrayed’ civil rights group

When announcing that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ district governing Disney World abolished its diversity, equity and inclusion programs, District Administrator Glen Gilzean Jr. name-dropped his previous employer, the Central Florida Urban League.

“Our district will no longer participate in any attempt to divide us by race or advance the notion that we are not created equal,” Gilzean, who is Black, said in the Tuesday announcement. “As the former head of the Central Florida Urban League, a civil rights organization, I can say definitively that our community thrives only when we work together despite our differences.”

But that civil rights organization is an affiliate of the National Urban League, which, in a statement sent to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida, blasted Gilzean and the decision.

Glenton Gilzean Jr.

“The National Urban League and our nationwide movement of more than 90 local affiliates are shocked and dismayed by Glen Gilzean’s betrayal of the values at the very core of our mission,” said Marc Morial, its president and CEO, in a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.

Gilzean had been the president and CEO of the local group from 2015 until he became district administrator in May, according to his LinkedIn page.

The National Urban League recognized his organization as “Urban League Affiliate of the Year” in 2018, according to the page, after he “worked to rid the organization of $1.2 million of debt and, in the process, re-establish its place as a community leader.”

The National Urban League is more than a century old and is one of the country’s largest civil rights groups. The organization’s mission is “to help African-Americans and others in underserved communities achieve their highest true social parity, economic self-reliance, power, and civil rights,” according to its website.

“His rejection of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion principles is a rejection of the Urban League Movement and the pursuit of racial justice itself,” Morial said. “We vigorously and emphatically reject any implied association with Mr. Gilzean’s current words or actions. His crass political expediency is all the more offensive given his previous vantage point to the harm he knows it will cause.” 

The Central Florida Urban League did not respond to media requests. Nor did the district or Gilzean.

Why the Disney district is undoing DEI

The district, which DeSantis now appoints the board of, said its decision came after an internal investigation found its previous leaders “implemented hiring and contracting programs that discriminated against Americans based on gender and race, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Now, the district is eliminating its DEI committee and associated job duties, as well as blocking its employees from working on DEI initiatives on the clock.

The previous leaders, before DeSantis took control of the district, “routinely awarded contracts based on racially and gender driven goals to businesses on the basis of their owners’ race and gender,” according to the announcement.

The district says “gender and racial quotas” were also given to contractors, which drained it of cash as it looked for complying businesses, which were “aggressively monitored” for their racial and gender practices.

“The so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives were advanced during the tenure of the previous board and they were illegal and simply unAmerican,” Gilzean said.

As governor and on the presidential campaign trail, DeSantis too has railed again DEI initiatives. He signed legislation in May that banned state funding for diversity programs at Florida’s public universities.

DeSantis has appointed Gilzean to numerous boards and commissions, including the Florida Commission of Ethics, where he’s chair.

Gilzean is also the chair of the African American History Task Force. Amid a controversy about Florida’s new African American history standards, particularly on required instruction that “slaves developed skills” for “personal benefit,” he has defended the curriculum.

When DeSantis took fire after Florida rejected the Advanced Placement African American Studies course, Gilzean wrote an opinion piece defending the governor and the move.

Back in May, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board unanimously approved Gilzean as administrator, giving him a $400,000 salary. That’s $45,000 more than the last administrator got, but the board said the new role came with more responsibilities and the knowledge the person filling it would have to deal with litigation from Disney.

First Amendment analysis of dispute:Feud between DeSantis, Disney could have profound implications on corporate speech

A history of the fued:Disney vs. DeSantis timeline: What happened when Florida’s governor took on the Mouse

How the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District came to be

Disney used to control the district, which takes care of roads, construction permits, fire protection, water and waste collection and other infrastructure needs across 25,000 acres of property in Orange and Osceola counties. 

But that was back when it was called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Last year, Disney spoke out spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, which restricts instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.

DeSantis and his GOP legislative allies responded with actions Disney says were retaliatory and a violation of its free speech rights, such as stripping Disney’s control of the district and giving it to the governor. It was renamed in the process.

In April, the theme park giant filed a federal lawsuit against the governor.

“Having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials,” the suit reads.

Gilzean and the board, along with acting Secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey, are also named in the suit. The board filed a legal salvo of its own against Disney in state court.

In interviews, writings and at the podium, DeSantis has repeatedly connected the legislative crackdown on Disney with what he calls their “woke” criticism of his signature parents rights law. But at other times and in his legal arguments, he said those efforts were focused on fairness, putting Disney on “a level playing field with every other business in Florida.”

The ramifications of the takeover are still far from settled, even outside the courts, as evidenced by Tuesday’s DEI announcement.

And, just last week, the board, encumbered with litigation costs due to the Disney dispute and other start-up expenses, said it’s eyeing cutting $8 million used to pay off-duty law enforcement officers who exclusively patrol Disney properties. Chairman Martin Garcia called it “wasteful spending.”

This reporting content is supported by a partnership with Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners. USA Today Network-Florida First Amendment reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule.

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