When Florida Republicans cruised to victory earlier this month largely on a culture-war platform, vowing to censor classroom discussions of racism and LGBTQ issues, they had help from a company owned by the Stronach Group.
Gulfstream Park, the Miami-area horse track and casino, bankrolled at least 41 candidates and campaign groups that support the Parental Rights in Education Act – labelled by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay” – and what is known as the Stop Woke law, a Globe and Mail review of state records reveals. The contributions totalled more than US$300,000 over two years.
The anti-LGBTQ law restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, including an absolute ban on those topics up to the third grade. Stop Woke prohibits teachings on structural racism in classrooms, universities and corporate training programs.
The laws were a major part of Governor Ron DeSantis’s re-election campaign, which on Nov. 8 delivered him a 19-point landslide and expanded his Republicans’ majority in the state legislature. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” he declared in his victory speech.
Gulfstream’s contributions to candidates who pushed anti-LGBTQ policies stand in contrast to the company’s attempts to brand itself as an LGBTQ ally. The track has previously played host to fundraisers for the Safe and Healthy Schools Project, a program that combats bullying.
The Stronach Group, based in Aurora, Ont., did not directly answer questions about its views on the anti-LGBTQ and Stop Woke laws.
“Decisions on U.S. political donations are reviewed and directed by our local leadership teams at each of our businesses across the U.S.,” Craig Fravel, executive vice-chairman of 1/ST Racing and Gaming, Stronach’s racing division, said in a statement.
In total, Gulfstream contributed to the campaigns of 30 state legislators who voted in favour of the anti-LGBTQ and Stop Woke legislation, as well as 10 other political action committees (PACs) that supported candidates backing these laws. The company also logged an in-kind donation of food and beverages to the state Republican Party.
Conversely, Gulfstream contributed to seven legislators who voted against the anti-LGBTQ law, including four who also opposed Stop Woke. The company gave a further US$17,500 to the Florida Democratic Party and US$17,500 to other progressive campaign groups.
Corporate responsibility has been central to the fractious fights over the two laws. Major companies from Disney to NBC have come under fire for trying to cultivate LGBTQ-friendly images while simultaneously donating to Mr. DeSantis and his allies.
During her own political career, Belinda Stronach, the Stronach Group’s chair, crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 2005, in part because she supported same-sex marriage, which most of the Tory caucus opposed at the time.
With Mr. DeSantis eyeing a 2024 presidential run, his style of politics and the companies that have helped fund Florida Republicans’ success will be of increasing national importance. And after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado last weekend, the role of anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric in fomenting hate-driven violence is receiving renewed scrutiny.
Gulfstream’s largest cumulative donation over the current campaign cycle was US$60,000 to Conservatives for Principled Leadership, a PAC chaired by Paul Renner, the GOP speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, who voted for the anti-LGBTQ law and Stop Woke. One of his PAC’s biggest expenses was US$300,000 to back Mr. DeSantis’s re-election.
At a party conference this past summer, Mr. Renner railed against companies embracing social justice and environmental causes as “the biggest threat” by “woke billionaires.”
Other large Gulfstream sums went to PACs supporting Wilton Simpson, the agriculture commissioner-elect and state Senate president who pushed the anti-LGBTQ and Stop Woke laws through the upper chamber (US$35,000); the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign (US$30,000); and PACs run by Republican legislators Ben Albritton (US$20,000) and Daniel Perez (US$20,000.)
During debate earlier this year, the anti-LGBTQ law’s proponents compared people in the community to pedophiles and said the law was necessary because too many children were coming out as gay.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer,” Mr. DeSantis’s spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, tweeted. Said Dennis Baxley, the state senator who wrote the legislation: “Why is everybody now all about coming out when you’re in school?”
Promoting Stop Woke, meanwhile, Mr. DeSantis insisted that Critical Race Theory, or having children learn about the history of slavery and institutional racism, was “teaching kids to hate our country.”
Corporate contributions to politicians backing anti-LGBTQ laws have taken flak in Florida over the past year. LGBTQ-rights activists have criticized several major companies for paying lip service to their cause while also donating to politicians pushing culture-war policies. These include Disney, telco AT&T and insurer UnitedHealthcare.
Amid walkouts from its own employees, Disney ultimately announced its opposition to the anti-LGBTQ law. Mr. DeSantis and his legislative allies promptly moved to strip Disney World of its special tax status.
In 2015, 2016 and 2017, Gulfstream played host to Taste of Equality, a food fair that raised money for Safe and Healthy Schools. The program promotes inclusion of LGBTQ kids and is run by Equality Florida, one of the main groups opposing the law.
“It’s important that we bring the community together and really honour and support the diversity of our community,” Corin Angel, Gulfstream’s then-head of marketing, said in an interview with the local NBC affiliate ahead of the 2016 edition of the event.
Equality Florida did not respond to requests for comment.
The Stronach business empire has been a generous political contributor for years. The Globe has previously reported that the Stronachs’ U.S. companies gave more than US$24-million to American politicians, political action committees and referendum campaigns since the 1990s. Gulfstream and Adena Farms, a cattle-ranching operation in Central Florida, have both held political fundraisers.
The Stronachs’ companies have a vested interest in much state-led policy in Florida, including the regulation of gambling, and whether Gulfstream or its competitors can expand their operations.
An online report by the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association shows several of the politicians to whose campaigns Gulfstream donated visiting the company’s facilities earlier this year. Mr. Renner, Mr. Perez, Bob Rommel, Josie Tomkow, Tom Leek, Sam Garrison and Lawrence McClure appear in photos at Gulfstream this past January.
The Stronachs, who originally made their fortune in auto parts, have owned a string of businesses across Canada and the U.S.
After a family feud between Ms. Stronach and her father, Frank, they divvied up their assets in 2020. Ms. Stronach kept control of the family’s horse tracks and casinos under the aegis of The Stronach Group, which she rebranded as 1/ST. Mr. Stronach held on to a cattle ranch and some horse farms.