Anna Eskamani was elected in November to represent Florida’s 47th district in the Florida House of Representatives. Eskamani was born and raised in Orlando. She is an alumna of University High School and holds two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from the University of Central Florida. The 28-year-old Iranian-American is also currently pursuing a doctorate degree in public affairs. The 47th district of Florida spans from Winter Park down to Belle Isle, encompassing College Park and downtown Orlando. She lives in Thornton Park and her office is in Colonialtown.
So you were born in Orlando, grew up here and decided to stay in Orlando to attend UCF. Talk about your connection to downtown Orlando specifically; you grew up on the east side?
I more grew up close to Lake Pickett and Colonial. I went to school with Bithlo students, I do a lot of altruism work at Bithlo, so that’s where I grew up. We would drive through downtown to get to different areas. My dad worked at Disney part time, so he had tickets. That was the only reason for my family, as a low-income family, that we could even go to Disney was because my dad worked there for a time. But we would avoid the expressway because of the tolls. So we would always drive through downtown Orlando. I remember being a kid and being wowed at all those cool buildings. Then my sister and I moved downtown about four years ago to the south Mills area. And then we just moved to Thornton Park in September, so we moved to Thornton Park in the middle of the campaign trail. But I’ve called the city of Orlando home for a good four years now. My roots have always been in this community and I never left for college because I just feel like Orlando is such a young city that it’s so malleable. As young leaders, we have the opportunity to really set the agenda for what kind of community we want to call home.
So, you’re a young, Iranian-American woman in a male-dominated position. How does that uniqueness as opposed to your peers affect your decision-making?
I think my existence, to some, challenges politics as usual. But Orlando is such a diverse community. I remember when I asked Mayor Buddy Dyer to endorse us early on in the campaign trail, he was very excited about the idea of Florida not only electing the first Iranian-American to any public office in Florida, but that she was coming from Orlando. He took a lot of pride in that. And Pulse Nightclub is also in district 47. I wear my rainbow ribbon alongside my transgender ribbon every day as a reminder of purpose of why we do this work, and why Orlando is so uniquely special to elect someone like me. Because the district is 85 percent white as well. So, this district overwhelmingly said, “We like her and we trust her and we want her to serve.” And then being brought to an environment which is still very much a dominant boys’ club environment, Tallahassee. And to your point of mostly conservative legislators. It provides a – I don’t call it a challenge, I call it an opportunity – to help demystify the stereotypes about people who look like me and about people my age and about people who identify as Democrats.
I hear you’re a vegetarian. Where do you go to eat out after a long day of work in Orlando?
A lot of my go-to vegetarian or vegan places include Market on South. I love Market on South. They’re one of the only places open later in the evening, so for my busy schedule when I get out of my last event at 9:30 at night and I haven’t had dinner yet, I often go to Market on South and just grab a quick bite to eat and work while I’m there. Drunken Monkey is also one of my go-to’s in the Milk District. I was there today. I like to go to Dandelion just down the street from us. I have a bike that I actually just bought from Kyle’s Bike Shop off Primrose, so I ride my bike to places now. I had a meeting with another elected official at Bad As’s Sandwich, so I rode my bike down there and I rode my bike back. I posted something on Instagram like, “I rode my bike to HD47’s Bad As’s Sandwich”and someone commented and said, “I thought that was Representative Eskamani riding her bike, but I didn’t think it really was.” But it was. I really try to be that champion of all issues. I lead by example. I care about the health of our environment and I also care about animal rights. Being a vegetarian, I think, is really walking the walk in that way. I try really hard to be transparent in everything I do.
You’ve mentioned some of your goals in your new role are to protect the environment, increase funding to public schooling and expand public transportation in Orlando. Talk about that last issue a little bit more. What exactly would you like to see happen as far as increased public transit?
We hear time and time again from our constituents that SunRail needs to be expanded. Its hours should be extended, and weekends should be available. So we’ve heard that concern from our constituents more than once. I also do support the effort of having an increased rail. Especially a direct rail to the airport from the city of Orlando. I even think a direct bus route that’s constant would be a step in the right direction. We have so many young professional and experienced business folks who are traveling a lot day to day. And having a quick path to the airport through public transit would be a game changer, and it would be well utilized in our community. But also thinking about other types of mobility. Whether it’s bike paths, whether it’s autonomous vehicles and being prepared for their expansion in our state. You know, Orlando is cutting-edge in a lot of ways and we need to be ready to embrace this disruptor when it comes to our market. And so to build trust with our community on the use of autonomous vehicles, to be really thoughtful to the workforce needed for that and how does our workforce over time evolve? Especially knowing that eventually busses are going to be autonomous. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen before we know it. And I’m concerned about the workforce, because we want to make sure bus drivers aren’t going to be unemployed, they’re gonna be part of that transition. So it’s a lot of courageous conversations to have, but as one of the most modern and cutting-edge cities, we’re so primed to have those conversations.
Your office is here in Colonialtown. You live in Thornton Park. Though you’ll have to go back and forth from Tallahassee, talk about the importance of engraining yourself in the community of your constituents.
I try to go to every single event. Like if I’m invited to go to any space, I do my best to show up. I work really hard to never practice transactional politics and to practice what I like to call transformational politics. And the difference for me is that transactional politics is very much, “I do this for you if you do this for me.” It’s a transaction, which is the status quo. It’s the way it’s always been done. If you practice and subscribe to transformational politics, that means you give without expectation. So, I will show up to any space not because I expect you to agree with me or support me, but it’s the right thing to do. And if I give that expectation, maybe it will inspire you to subscribe to my values. But if it doesn’t, that’s totally fine. We will still find common ground on some issues. Sometimes I go to Mosaic Hair Salon off of Virginia, and the owner Mike is a big libertarian and I’ve known him for years, and we don’t agree on everything, but I love the conversations we have. I take so much pride in the fact that here in this district you can have those conversations and it doesn’t feel aggressive or vitriolic. It feels really wholesome, thoughtful and compassionate. I think that’s what makes Orlando so unique is that you can have this dialogue without the feeling that you’re being attacked.
Speaking of being attacked, that campaign got pretty heated. Can you talk about that nasty side of politics now that you’ve lived through it?
I just ground myself in all these personal stories [from constituents] as the keeper of them, but also as a facilitator to have these stories be heard in a place like Tallahassee. And that was always what grounded me through every attack. It’s what reminded me to be my authentic self. Every time an attack was thrown our way, I would just crumple it and throw it back, and I think that reflected well through our constituents who rallied behind us. I did hit a point, though, when we would knock on doors, almost everyone saw that mail. There would be moments where I would knock on a door and the mailbox is there and I could see the attack mail. I see my face and whatever rhetoric, and I’m like, “Man. How did we get this far?” I’m a working-class daughter of an immigrant who lost her mom and misses her every day, and I’m working full-time getting my doctorate. I’m not your typical elected official. But what an incredible country where not only am I that candidate, but I’m now that representative. And the fact that my competition spent so much money against me is a compliment, right? It just speaks to how strong we are and the fact that our community rejected that overwhelmingly and we won by a 14-point margin in a swing seat. So Republicans voted for us. No party affiliation voters supported us, and Democrats stood with us in huge solidarity. That, I’m really proud of, because it just demonstrates that we ran a very inclusive campaign. We didn’t isolate anyone and folks who did not agree with me on every issue still felt like they could trust me, and I will never take that for granted.