Painting On with Florida House Member Anna Eskamani

This Thursday, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Florida House of Representatives member, Anna Eskamani. In her noticeably more decorated office, high in the tower and dripping with framed news stories, Rep. Eskamani allowed me the opportunity to review the life of a young woman as an elected official in the Florida capitol. 

HerCampus (HC): For those of us unfamiliar, can you give a little bit about yourself?

Anna Eskamani (AE): Sure! I’m Anna V. Eskamani, proud Orlando native. I'm the daughter of two working-class immigrants who came from Iran. My parents came from two different parts of Iran but met in Orlando, working at the same donut shop. It really is that [classic] American love story and our family did everything to achieve the American dream. I went to public school K-12, both my mom and dad were always working. My dad went to UCF in 1994, got a degree in electrical engineering, started working on the Space Coast on the weekdays and at Walt Disney World on the weekends just to make ends meet. My mom worked at K-Mart with other fast food places before that but, unfortunately, was diagnosed with cancer when I was a kid and passed when I was thirteen. She’s still a big part of everything that I do and, this painting was her last painting, so she never finished it. You can still see the pencil marks for the flowers and the trees on the right side, so I keep it as a reminder that her work isn’t finished, we have to keep writing it. 

I’ve always been an empathetic person, even before I knew what empathy was. Growing up, I was always concerned with others, and, when I got to UCF, I got really involved with a bunch of different campus organizations. I was an Environmental Science major before Political Science, and I’m a vegetarian –now aspiring vegan- as you hear a lot about climate change on this sweet little Earth we have. I had an amazing government teacher when I was a senior in high school, who also helped me understand the importance of civic engagement, the lack of women and the lack of people of color in political spaces so that definitely inspired me to minor in Political Science, which I then switched to my major. Later on, I picked up Women’s Studies for a second major as well, got my masters, then a Ph.D. During that time, I worked at Planned Parenthood directly in advocacy, but also inter-sectionally. My main focus has always been around women and girls, knowing that our issues affect everyone and building my “manifest-a” around that.

HC: As a freshman representative, do you find that it’s harder to press through your initiatives on the floor?

AE: Haha, YES. Not just a freshman either, a freshman Democrat and a freshman vocal Democrat. It’s always a challenge, but I think a part of it, too, is, during my first session a lot of assumptions were made about me. I don’t know if it’s that people see a young woman of color and they make assumptions about what their approach will be or what their intent is, so the first session was really an opportunity to find myself to my colleagues. Which, that’s what the campaign was: the campaign was me defining myself to our constituents as opponents were trying to [throw around] labels. I feel like it’s always a double standard that people and young women will face, but even despite the differences and the barriers -both from being a freshman Democrat alongside those more socially constructed- we still thrived. We were still able to increase art and culture funding by 800% plus we brought back $100,000 for human trafficking prevention in Central Florida. 

There were three moments where amendments that I’d filed to bills failed when I filed them, but the bill sponsor would attach them later. We do talk about this a lot in the gender sphere of getting credit stolen or not being given credit, so that is common, but you also have to not be so concerned about who gets the credit –especially in this body- instead focusing on what’s good for the people of Florida. I say this all the time: I have no ego in this, but with more women elected, that also tends to be the response. I do try to make more collaborative spaces with my colleagues and celebrate their successes as if they were my family, but at the same time, you get the worst parking spot. I actually got none of my committees of preference, so, I had to learn a lot really fast. I only serve on three committees this session, and I was removed from one earlier. Well, I shouldn’t say I was removed, but the committee was eliminated, and I was not reappointed where other members were. Either way, it’s always very humbling to be here and you have to measure success not by how many wins you have in the traditional sense, but you really should measure success by how hard you fight even when you know you’re going to lose. 

HC: So, you sat down with Rep. Latvala for a bipartisan town hall a few months ago, how do you see bipartisanship playing a role in the lawmaking process, especially in such polarized times?

AE: Yes, so important! I love my Republican colleagues, I think they’re absolutely adorable, it’s fantastic. Nothing but love for all my colleagues, and I think you have to be really intentional to try to create the spaces where you are together. The bipartisan Twitter town hall was just one example of that, of coming together, of having these discussions, of having fun and being able to poke fun at each other. One of my favorite moments from that night was when someone asked about protesting education issues, and so I retweeted with a picture of me with our big megaphone with the caption “tell me when!” I de-escalated the situation and we had multiple situations like that. We had an actual town hall-type setting with Rep. Sirois with Florida Today, we’ve had multiple bipartisan bills, even bills of ours that have become Republican bills. You know, I think it’s important for two reasons; you mentioned one earlier, the polarization. I think it’s important to demonstrate to our constituents and to young people growing up that it’s possible to get along with those who are different than you. 

Even yesterday, I had a meeting with folks of the anti-abortion movement and I basically ignored the forefront issue where we were going to disagree, instead talking about prenatal care, postnatal care, sexual trauma, what we can do to support new moms, [et cetera.] It was great meeting, just like any other meeting that was informational and thoughtful with no tension. So, I think part of that is modeling that for others, but the other point is that Florida is a diverse state and ideally part of the democratic process is consensus building. What’s still a little frustrating about our legislature today is that there isn’t that much consensus building. A lot of times there’s bills that, it’s not even partisanship, it’s corporate interest or another motivation, but they end up being a party-line vote for different reasons.

I would expect when I propose a bill, members would ask me the tough questions, I feel it makes the process better. I think modeling that is good for the community, but even more than that, I think good public policy comes from bipartisan dialogue.

HC: Most people assume the lives of lawmakers are stuffy and often not vibrant. What do you do in your spare time to relax?

AE: Well the first thing that I'll say is that this is not a glamorous life whatsoever, and each lawmaker it's going to be different, but I’m not one to go to many of the events. You know almost every night there's a reception, and for me, I don't really have time to go. I’m busy a lot, like yesterday I had to Skype into my class to present on public administrative policy from the office. 

There is that image of public officials in a cigar room, and that certainly does exist still, but as we move into having more everyday elected folks from working backgrounds, especially women, it does change. Then you have folks that are parents who go check on their kids, you have folks, like me, who still do their day jobs on top of this. I had a work call yesterday and a reporter waiting for me and it was the last ten minutes of my work call and it was me bringing them in as I wrapped up my work. 

To your question of what I do for fun, if I could honestly just sleep, I’d enjoy that a lot. I’d be grateful for a few hours; I’d really be grateful to engage in the process of sleep. You know, getting to put on sleep clothes, wash my face, brush my teeth. Most nights, I sleep in my work clothes. I was lucky enough to put my phone on the charger last night, but I crawled in and I was knocked out. I just want to have more routine in my life. The things that I do for respite, though, I love going to the beach and sitting in the sand. I love going hiking in the woods, exploring new spaces. I love reading -especially reading books for fun. I'm a huge John Green fan and I love his books, so any moment I can have to be in those spaces, I always cherish those. 

HC: What are some bills making their way to the floor this session that us ladies should be looking out for?

AE: The first that comes to mind is access to safe and legal abortion. Senate bill 404 is on its way past the Senate and will be heard on the House floor a week after that. This one specifically impacts young people under the age of eighteen by changing Florida’s laws from parental notification to parental consent. Folks should know that parental notification has been the law for fifteen years in Florida and requires a young person if they wish to end their pregnancy [under the age of] eighteen they have to notify their guardian and so does the provider or a judicial bypass is sought out. This process is already really burdensome but out of the number of abortion services provided in the country, 4 percent are those under eighteen, 66 percent of those are talking to a guardian already and the other third don’t because they’re fearful for their lives or they’re fearful of being kicked out of their home. That’s the law we have now, but the legislature wants to change it from parental notification to consent, giving the parent or guardian veto power now. It does seem like this is also part of a larger agenda to test our conservative Supreme Court and potentially ban abortion in the state of Florida. If you care about reproductive rights, that’s a big one to watch. 

We’ve also seen legislation filed around keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers; it’s one of our bills that we filed. House Bill 499 would ensure that if you have a misdemeanor of domestic violence you do not have access to a firearm, which is federal law, but has loopholes when you bring it down to the local level. After the Tallahassee yoga studio, after the Pulse shooting, after so many mass shootings it becomes clear that there’s a connection between this anti-women fervor in domestic violence towards mass shootings, but also, we know that when there is a gun in the situation of domestic violence when an individual is trying to leave that domestic violence that individual is five times more likely to be killed leaving the situation. We see it as addressing those everyday acts of violence while also preventing mass shootings in the future.

This session, we’ve seen legislation filed around reducing human trafficking with funding going towards human trafficking programs, we have the ERA in Florida. Virginia has become the last state to ratify it nationally and there still is a lot of energy around folks who do want Florida to join that chorus. I believe Rep. Thompson has filed an equal-work-equal-pay act type of legislation, which is another good one to follow, but to be honest, every piece of legislation affects women and girls. The budget is also a big one to be watching, like say how we pay our teachers. Our teachers are instrumental in changing lives, and [teacher jobs] employ a lot of women. I’m also a big fan of keeping track of tax policy because not enough of us are watching taxation, but tax policy is aggressive in Florida and there is research around the gender inequities caused by tax policy, so it’s also worth diving into that subject as well.

I’m fortunate to have gotten a few moments of the sought-after representative’s time as I was certainly not the only one waiting in her unit’s office for a moment with her. I’m inspired by her constant positivity and I can only hope that, like her and many young women with a calling to politics, I never stop filling in the painting. 

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