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(Bloomberg) -- About 100 progressive activists rallied in New York City on Sunday to protest an event at Chelsea Piers entertainment center featuring Ron DeSantis, as speculation grows that the Florida governor is gearing up for a presidential run.
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Protesters chanted “Shame” and “Boycott Chelsea Piers” as they brandished signs outside the Jewish Leadership Conference, an annual event produced by the conservative nonprofit Tikvah Fund. DeSantis, who rounded off the day’s speakers with a discussion on “The Florida Model and Why It’s Good for Religious Americans,” couldn’t resist taking a swipe at his detractors from the outset.
“They can’t cancel me. I’m going to speak my mind,” DeSantis said at the beginning of his speech.
The 43-year-old Republican used his time on stage to make the case that “unprecedented” levels of people, including conservatives and Jews, were moving to his home state thanks to his “family-friendly” policies.
DeSantis has provoked widespread ire from Democrats since he signed legislation this year that prohibits education about gender identity and sexual orientation in some Florida grades. Critics have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, while DeSantis referred to it in his speech as “curriculum transparency.”
His appearance in the middle of Pride month in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood known for its rich LGBTQ history, added to the tension. And to some, the fact that he traveled to New York in the middle of his own re-election campaign in Florida suggests he’s trying to gain traction for a potential 2024 tilt at the White House.
“DeSantis is clearly trying to raise money here in New York City for that speculative presidential bid,” New York State Senator Brad Hoylman told Bloomberg News at the protest. “He’s stirring up a hateful set of the Republican party, who want to see LGBTQ people erased from textbooks, schools, if not daily public life entirely.”
DeSantis also took aim again at Walt Disney Co., which condemned the governor’s anti-LGBTQ legislation in the wake of shareholder pressure. He reiterated his plan to strip the media giant of its special government district status and turn control over to the state.
DeSantis’ conservative stances play well among Republicans in Florida, where he’s leading in the polls for his November re-election bid.
“There’s a Jewish Renaissance taking place in Florida, and we wanted to hear from DeSantis on what his vision for religious minorities is elsewhere in the country, and that’s why we invited him,” said Jonathan Silver, the co-chair of the Jewish Leadership Conference.
Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who was also protesting outside, condemned the use of counterterrorism techniques by local law enforcement including barricades and K-9 units. Citing high death rates among transgender people, she said the presence of DeSantis perpetuated harm against the LGBTQ community.
Silver declined to comment specifically on criticisms lodged against the governor from activists and legislators on his anti-LGBTQ policies, but said his politics were a component of the diverse range of panelists invited to speak. He also declined to address speculation that DeSantis was in New York to raise funds ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Chelsea Piers said last week “our accepting a booking in no way implies that we endorse the respective organization or its speakers.”
(Adds comment from DeSantis speech)
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