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The Magic Kingdom Meets World of Politics : Observers Say Arrogance Doomed Disney Legislation; Company Blames Bad Timing


Crucial legislation that would have enabled the Walt Disney Co. to build a $3-billion theme park in Long Beach appears dead for the year, and some observers say Disney has only itself to blame.

Critics contend that the entertainment giant came off in Sacramento as "arrogant" and "stumble-footed," in attempting to ramrod through the Legislature a bill that would have amended the California Coastal Act to allow filling in 250 acres of ocean in Queensway Bay.

"They tried to kick down the door in Sacramento, push their way through the Legislature and influence lawmakers," Long Beach City Councilman Ray Grabinski said. "They found out that in Sacramento, Mickey Mouse can get eaten for lunch."

Disney officials defended the company's handling of the legislation. They blamed the setback on the timing of the bill--introduced while the Legislature is entangled in a budget crisis--and the complexity of environmental concerns that the measure raised.

"I thought we behaved with appropriate courtesy to all people at all times," said Joe Shapiro, Disney's senior vice president and general counsel.

"We certainly had no intention of muscling the bill through the Legislature" said Alan Epstein, vice president of the Disney Development Co. "The bill simply attracted more attention than the city or we anticipated."

Disney shelved the controversial legislation for the year last week after a series of faux pas that observers say offended the environmental community, at least two key senators and various local officials.

The powerful Disney company is accustomed to calling the shots in Orlando, Fla., critics say, where it operates the enormously successful Walt Disney World and wields considerable power with the Florida Legislature.

"Disney thought it had the money and the clout to sail this through the Legislature," said Darryl Young, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, one of several powerful environmental groups that opposed the bill. "But this is not Orlando, Fla. This is Sacramento, Calif."

In the past year or so, Disney has boosted contributions to state officeholders to $95,000 and spent another $73,000 on initiatives, more than a tenfold increase over the yearly average contributed by the firm during the 1980s, according to an analysis of campaign reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office. In 1990, Disney also spent more than $303,000 on local campaigns, an almost fivefold jump from the year before, the records showed. Most of that--$260,000--went to campaigns for transportation tax increases in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

But the corporation's generosity failed to muster the support that Disney hoped when it introduced the bill March 8, banking that it would be signed into law in a year.

Bypassing area lawmakers, Disney recruited Republican Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno to carry the legislation, a decision Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena) called "probably shortsighted."

Dills and Sen. Robert G. Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach) were ultimately added to the bill as co-authors, but by then, political toes had already been stepped on.

"If you are going into someone's district, you ought to at least let them know," Dills declared.

Not all senators were offended by Disney's actions, however. Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), a member of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, said he was lobbied by four Disney officials whom he described as "ladies and gentlemen" who lived up to the Disney image "of being polite and considerate."

Even so, the legislation seemed to get off to a bad start in the Natural Resources Committee. Hearings were postponed several times. Then bill stalled in committee, was loaded with amendments and was perceived as having "stumbled," Young, of the Sierra Club said.

Then, during intense negotiations at the Capitol, Disney angered two key senators--Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville) and Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose)--who accused the company of "arrogantly" trying to expedite the bill to passage.

"They assumed there would be no problems . . . that it would be easy for them to get (the legislation) through," McCorquodale said.

One of the bill's greatest hurdles was the complex issue of mitigation--the restoration of wetlands required of developers to compensate for any environmental damage their projects cause.

Disney's Shapiro said the company found itself trying to hammer out a mitigation compromise in the Senate, a topic it did not expect to tackle for at least two years at California Coastal Commission hearings.

As negotiations dragged on, the environmental community took aim at the bill, which they said would dangerously amend the California Coastal Act and expose the rest of the California shoreline to development.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and American Oceans Campaign faulted Disney for failing to consult them while the bill was being authored, rather than after it was already introduced.

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