No issue is off limits for Anna Eskamani, a 29-year-old activist who was elected last year to the Florida legislature. As the State representative from the Orlando House district where 49 people were murdered in the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, she is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, and a passionate proponent of smart and necessary responses to gun violence.

She fights for economic and social and racial justice in her community, and as one of the youngest and most progressive Democratic members of a Republican-controlled legislative chamber. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, she frequently finds herself addressing international issues—especially as the president of the United States threatens to attack the country her parents grew up in.

Eskamani is undaunted by the demands of her position. She is taking on a right-wing Republican governor, and winning fights. And if she runs into too many roadblocks in the state Capitol, she’s ready to hit the streets with advocates for immigrant rights, civil rights campaigners, teachers, and trade unionists. Anna Eskamani’s inside-outside approach to politics, and her remarkable personal story, make her an inspiring guest on this week’s Next Left.

Subscribe to Next Left on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

* * *
Show Notes

UCF twins become ‘future of Florida’ at 26Orlando Sentinel, Kate Santich

The Blue Wave is Just Getting StartedThe Nation, Amanda Litman

Somber memorials on anniversary of Florida nightclub rampageAP News, Mike Schneider

Rep. Anna Eskamani calls for probe of NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, Orlando Sentinel, Steven Lemongello 

Anna Eskamani bringing Persian celebration to CapitolFlorida Politics, Scott Powers

Dige Nemibine Mano,” Tik Taak

This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Recording help this week from Amy Green. Our theme song is “Deli Run,” by Ava Luna.

* * * 

Full Transcript

John Nichols: Welcome to Next Left, this is John Nichols of The Nation magazine. On June 12th, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded at a mass shooting inside the Pulse night club, a popular LGBTQ gathering spot in Orlando, Florida. Anna Eskamani organized to help the survivors, rallied against homophobia, and was one of the many central Floridians who got a tattoo to symbolize a determination to honor the dead and fight like hell for the living. When she got that tattoo, of the word Orlando in rainbow colors, Anna told a local reporter, “This tattoo is a forever reminder of purpose, the tattoo reminds me that we must step up and create real change.” Two years later, Anna Eskamani was elected to the Florida state legislature, where she is indeed fighting for real change, on LGBTQ rights, gun violence, reproductive freedom, and so many other issues. This remarkable activist, the daughter of Iranian immigrants who helped to inspire her passion for justice, is our guest this week, on Next Left.

Anna Eskamani, thanks so much for joining us on Next Left.

Anna Eskamani: It’s an honor to be here.

John Nichols: You’ve dedicated your public service to your mother, tell us about her.

Anna Eskamani: Oh, I’d love to, I think about her every second. My mother’s name is Nasrin. She was an immigrant from Iran, just like my dad, and came to this country in search of the American dream. They actually came from two different parts of Iran, but met in a donut shop in central Florida. And my mom recognized my dad’s accent, and started speaking to him in Farsi and the rest was history. They made Orlando their home, and I just always looked up to my mom as someone who was really brave, courageous. She worked really hard, John, to the point where the only times she could see her kids was like an hour lunch break when she was at Kmart. And there would be nights too, where my sister and I, my twin sister and I would be at Kmart helping her fold clothes and cleaning up the store so she’d get home at a decent time. And as our family was working to achieve the aspirations of purchasing a new home, trying to be more financially secure, everything shook when our mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was 10 years old when that first happened, and I really became one of her immediate caretakers. And again, just admiring her strength but also, experiencing the pain of her illness, which ebbed and flowed. She had so many surgeries, radiation, chemo, and unfortunately in 2004 we lost her to that battle. I was 13 years old and made a decision to honor her life, the act of empowering others, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

John Nichols: There’s a part of your initial campaign video, where you mentioned what I thought was just a very poignant reality: For immigrant families, so often home ownership is a big deal, creating your own home. And your mother spent only two nights in the home, is that right? 

Anna Eskamani: Yes. When I was first growing up in central Florida, we lived in apartments, and the first home my parents purchased was small. And my sister and I, we shared a room till we were about 13 years old and my mom really wanted a house where each one of her kids would have their own bedroom. We have an older brother as well, and there was a moment where three of us were living in one room because my family from Iran was visiting us but trying to gain citizenship. So they took my brother’s room, my brother moved in with us. I mean it was a pretty crowded household, full of love, but not ideal for your kids to invite their friends over. My mom was always kind of embarrassed by that. So she really envisioned a different type of life. And as we were achieving that vision, she spent two nights there and actually went into kind of like a coma, I mean we had to … I remember coming home from school and our dad telling us that mom was back in the hospital because she wouldn’t wake up that morning. Like so many families, the dynamics are always so complex: I remember each one of us going to our separate rooms and then hearing our dad crying and us just like rushing out to comfort one another and go to the hospital immediately. So, it’s a pain that I keep with me every day. I tell folks, I have a chip on my shoulder because of it, but it definitely inspires me to have empathy for others, and it builds my resilience. And I think as an elected official, as a young progressive, you have to have both. You have to lead with empathy, but also practicing resilience, because being an elected official is not easy, and maintaining your authentic self is not easy. But my identity and my personal experiences give me the foundation that makes it easier.

John Nichols: Orlando, which you represent, is such a place of incoming. It’s one of the fastest growing cities and metro areas in the country. And so many of the people who come there are immigrants from outside the country, and then also people from other places in the US, such as Puerto Rico. And so, you do have an experience that connects you with the reality of the place you represent.

Anna Eskamani: Absolutely. Something that’s so special about Orlando is that it’s still a young city, it’s very malleable. I feel like, as now a 29 year old, I can have an impact in shaping our community. And our interns—who are some in high school, some just starting college—had that same opportunity because the city is still at that point where we can influence its direction in a meaningful way. I will say that our district, District 47, is 85% white. So when we ran for office, we spoke as our authentic selves and I was really just so grateful that our district, which it is pretty established, these are folks who, we have Orlandonians who’d been here for generations and it’s a flipped seat, and yet they still voted for us overwhelmingly. And I do think that our immigrant story, my personal story of finding power and pain, is something that folks really resonated with. And I’m sure it also ties to the fact that this district is home to Pulse nightclub, where we lost 49 mostly queer black and brown people to the act of gun violence. And that’s another instance of Orlando coming together to push back against bigotry and hate, to call for common sense gun safety legislation. And that’s been a part of my rallying cry before I even ran for office, and it was another commonality, another value that I could share with our district. And folks just hugged right back in the process.

John Nichols: I wanted to ask you about the fact that the Pulse nightclub is located in your district. [The mass shooting there in June, 2016] was such a jarring moment, not just for Florida but for the whole country. Were you there in the district or in that region at the time?

Anna Eskamani: Yes, I was actually. I think everyone on the world honestly remembers where they were when Pulse happened, because it does impact folks so uniquely, especially if you’re in the community, but also if you identify as LGBTQ+ no matter where you live, I think it impacts you and you remember that moment. In my case, I was attending an event Saturday night: I’m kind of like an old lady, I was at a fundraiser-type event. Then I came home and my twin sister, Ida Eskamani, who worked at Equality Florida at the time, actually had just come back from her first time visiting Europe. And so, she was already sleeping because of just the travel and the layovers and stuff. So I remember knowing she was home but sleeping, and so I just went to bed and I woke up, I woke up at around 3:00 AM to the sounds of helicopters outside, because we live, at the time, less than two miles away from Pulse. And the night before was another shooting in the district, there was a shooting at the Plaza Live with a young artist being murdered. And my first reaction, like many of us in our community was, oh, another shooting, because it literally, it just happened. And I went on Facebook, and I saw one of my really good LGBTQ friends post about Pulse, and that’s when it hit me that this was something really, really different. And I got right up and turned on the TV and just watched the news come in like everyone else, and then when my sister woke up, I told her what happened and she jumped straight to work. My twin sister is actually the one who started the Pulse GoFundMe campaign that raised $9 million. And I did my part, as a … working at Planned Parenthood at the time, to show up as an accomplice to the LGBTQ+ community. And we not only helped to raise dollars, donate blood, collect gift cards for families who were staying at hospitals, but we committed ourselves to action and hosted a sit-in at Senator Marco Rubio’s office about a month after the massacre, holding him accountable. Because if you might remember, Senator Rubio was not going to run for office anymore, and made his decision at the nightclub that we needed him for some reason. And we really just felt like that was such a politically motivated decision that was on the back of trauma, and we wanted to hold them accountable to it.

John Nichols: And representing this district, which has had this trauma, that puts a particular responsibility on you, not just on issues of LGBTQ concern, but also gun violence. Your district has experienced one of the most noted instances of gun violence in the history of this country.

Anna Eskamani: Yes, it’s true. It’s true, and we have to be unapologetic and bold about it. And it’s interesting you bring up that question, because after the 2016 election cycle, I was so upset waking up the next day, and I was very engaged in the campaign cycle, working at Planned Parenthood and doing work with the action fund. So I was, I was very much, head and heart in the process. And woke up the next day in tears feeling that the country I call home had completely rejected me. And it took me a while to build a comfort to run for office, but I’ll tell you, one of the thoughts that I had running in my head was the concern about running against a moderate Republican because at the time this seat had a “moderate Republican.” And so, there were some Democrats that were like, ah, you know, he’s a good guy and et cetera, et cetera. But then I thought about Pulse, and I thought about the fact that we don’t need a wishy washy moderate Republican or wishy washy Democrat in this seat. We need a strong Democrat who is going to stand up to the National Rifle Association, who’s going to call out special interests when she sees them, and fight for gun safety policy. And at the time, our incumbent refused to address this issue. And it was one of the motivating factors for me: The fact that Pulse nightclub is here in our community, and we can’t just sit idly by while we lose 96 people every day to gun violence.

John Nichols: And you had a recent incident as a legislator: Just in recent weeks, the governor, the Republican governor of your state [Ron DeSantis], did a memorial to Pulse that didn’t mention the LGBTQ community.

Anna Eskamani: Yeah, he released a proclamation, the eve of the three year mark of Pulse, and did not mention LGBTQ or latinx members of our community.

John Nichols: You were the one who recognized that, if I’m reading the reports correctly, and really made a big deal about it.

Anna Eskamani: Absolutely. Yeah. I was pissed when I saw that the night before, and immediately went towards social media, tweeting out a photo of his proclamation in contrast to governor Rick Scott’s proclamation [from immediately after the Pulse massacre]. And I think what pissed me off more is that the proclamation was almost verbatim Rick Scott’s, except erasing those words. Even Rick Scott included identities of those directly impacted. So, just drawing the contrast between the two set the stage for some huge social media pressure. And by the next day it had really built up, it was getting press attention, and within hours the governor had tweeted out a statement on Twitter integrating LGBTQ in his message, and then maybe an hour later a new proclamation was released. And then a few hours after that the governor announces that he’s coming to Pulse nightclub. So I was very proud of our efforts. If people ever doubt the power of one person, that’s an example of how one person turns into many. And it’s funny, there were many times in the past of folks asking me, “Well, what are you a freshman Democratic going to be able to get done in Tallahassee?” Because the environment is very driven by the majority party. And I think that’s an a perfect example what we’re able to get done, when we lean on our collective voice over just one. And sure enough the governor came and we greeted him at Pulse nightclub and we were able to introduce him to a Pulse survivor, Brandon Wolf, who’s also an advocate on issues of gun safety. Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, who’s one of my colleagues, who serves a neighboring district but identifies as a LGBTQ Latino, was there with us. And we thanked the governor for the correction, and I told him that I look forward to real policy change and having that conversation with them, because words are one thing, but this is a state where our workers have no protections for being gay. And we’ve been pushing to pass the Competitive Workforce Act for over a decade now, which would be legislation that would update Florida’s civil rights language to ensure that LGBTQ+ folks are also protected from discrimination in employment, public housing, et cetera. So we have a lot more work to do, and I’m hopeful that this moment we’ll remind our governor of the power of these issues and how we’re going to hold him accountable to it.

John Nichols: Obviously your governor is not someone who’s of your party and certainly not of your ideological bent. And one of the issues that’s come to a head in Florida, and a number of other states is reproductive freedom, and this is one of your routes of entry into politics, isn’t it? Because you became active very young with Planned Parenthood.

Anna Eskamani: Absolutely. Yeah, like one in five American women, I was a Planned Parenthood patient. When I was 18 years old, because my mom had passed away, I had no one to talk to about birth control, about dating, about intimate partner violence, I found myself looking for answers at Planned Parenthood. Made an appointment by myself, walked in alone, and though I was so nervous and anxious, to be in that type of environment, I was just filled with so much gratitude as I met the staff there, and every question was answered with such kindness. And I left with a method of contraception that was right for me. And continued to volunteer at Planned Parenthood when I was in college, serving as a health center escort, walking patients in from their cars to our front doors, when they were protesters outside, and then was hired to work at Planned Parenthood in 2012 and served there for about six years. During that time, too, I got my master’s at the University of Central Florida, then I really just dived deep into the world of advocacy, specifically on abortion access and helping patients share their stories. Because one in four American women have had an abortion in this country and yet it’s still so stigmatized. And so, doing whatever I could to help share stories, to help bring patients to Tallahassee, and I’ll tell you every fight we would lose, no matter how many patients we brought up, no matter how many points we made, hours of testimony, hours of debate, watching lawmakers on the House floor debate this issue like a football, was always so frustrating to me because at the end the day directly impacted folks are going to suffer. It’s not going to be politicians who suffer. It’s going to be the women in this state, trans men in this state who might need an abortion and continue to be tossed around as if it’s a game. And that experience helped me realize that politicians are not untouchable, that we needed to elect different type of people because the wrong people were in office. And it definitely was one of those pieces in the puzzle that allowed me to give myself permission to run for office, which for women it can be very difficult to give yourself permission to do that. And that was one of the pieces in the mix that eventually added to my courage to make that decision.

John Nichols: You gave yourself permission and you did something quite remarkable: You flipped a district that had been held by a moderate Republican, who had in fact worked to keep the Republican brand, if you will, strong in that district.

Anna Eskamani: Well, and I will say, we actually chased out the incumbent because he decided to run for Congress before we even announced.

John Nichols: Right.

Anna Eskamani: But to your point, we were going to go up against him, that was the plan. But when he knew we were coming, he decided to run for Congress. And eventually we did face pretty harsh opposition: I mean our opponent, his name was Stockton Reeves VI, and he was very well established in the district, part of the district, and had self wealth, and so he had funded his campaign at over half a million dollars doing negative attack mail, three TV commercials that were all negative. So he was very much committed to trying not just win the campaign, but destroy who I am in the eyes of our district, and really just saturate his perspective on everyone. And we were always unapologetic. And I have to tell you, the consultants were not a category of folks I relied on, because I found that a lot of their feedback was not helpful, and all their feedback wasn’t, “Maintain the authenticity.” And I actually did keep a running list in the very beginning of feedback I was getting, and you know, it was comments raging from how to wear my hair to I need to change how I speak, and don’t bring up quote “embarrassing stories” like my birth control story, like that is something I shouldn’t talk about. Right? I mean it was just … it was really just like shallow feedback and feedback that spoke to why in my eyes Democrats kept losing races, is that we’re not allowing ourselves to be authentic, we’re trying to fit into a box. And part of my mission running for office was to redefine what a winner looks like, and I wanted to be myself because I didn’t want to get to Tallahassee and have to act a certain way. I wanted to always be my authentic self and we ran an activist campaign. Absolutely. We knocked on 40,000 doors, we raised $523,000 from 4,000 individual donations. We participated in protests all the time, whether it was president Trump separating families at the border, whether it was the Women’s Marches, whether it was supporting March For Our Lives students in their efforts to hold a corporation called Publix accountable for giving huge contributions to an NRA sellout gubernatorial candidate. I laid on the floor with them at our Publix grocery store in the district as a demonstration of solidarity and commitment to [combating] gun violence. And that was plastered across the district. I would be knocking on doors and see negative mail about me in the mailbox. I mean it was such an intimate campaign and just so very real for me. But it spoke to our values and it was funny, a lot of those mail pieces kind of backfired on our opponent, because I would have folks all the time tell me or tell our volunteers like “Yeah, I like her style” and things like that. And so, it kind of evolved in ways they weren’t expecting, but at the end of the day it was once more a test of our resiliency but a reminder to just be yourself, and just speak your truth and do your homework, work hard and folks will really celebrate you for that.

John Nichols: Well, at the very least your opponent upped your name recognition.

Anna Eskamani: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. And like it’s funny: Again, some consultants would like, send me unsolicited advice and say like, Hey, never say your opponent’s name, you don’t have to acknowledge the negative mail. And I was like, what? No, I want people to know that this is the asshole that’s treating me like this. And so, one of the efforts that we did was every time we got a piece of mail, I would always throw it back. And so, there was one picture where he photoshopped a hammer in my hand, and it was so weird, and I don’t know what the intent was, but it was supposed to make me look scary, I guess. And so I took a photo of it and I put it on Twitter and I said, “Oh, is this the hammer I’m supposed to smash the Patriarchy with?” And it just took off on a life of its own. And the hammer has become symbolic of our mission to the point where we have been gifted hammers, we have a hammer in our Tallahassee office, we have one here in the Orlando Office. I got a hammer tattoo on the back of my ear as a reminder to just be yourself. So, we took every attack in stride and I’m really proud of the fact that they threw everything at us, and yet nothing stuck because we didn’t let it stick.

John Nichols: And that hammer is, I think it’s on your Twitter handle. It’s pretty much everywhere you are. And the hammer tattoo, I mean, do you compare tattoos with your fellow legislatures?

Anna Eskamani: Actually, yeah. If I see a little, see a tattoo sticking out of someone’s shirt, I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” So yeah, it becomes a good conversation starter, that’s for sure. I actually have three tattoos, so it wasn’t my first one, but my tattoos were all very subtle. But one of my most important ones is actually a Pulse tattoo. It’s on my wrist, on my right hand and it says Orlando in rainbow with the O, the last letter, being a heart with a pulse line through it. So I got that tattoo two weeks after Pulse.

John Nichols: You come from an immigrant family and you’re an Iranian American. Obviously the Florida legislature’s not dealing too often with foreign policy, one hopes, but you have this other part of your experience. As we speak, the president and others are making lots of noises about Iran. Do you find yourself drawn into those discussions?

Anna Eskamani: It is my duty to be part of those conversations. My first time in Iran was in 2005 to bring my mom’s ashes to the Caspian Sea and a majority of my family is still in Iran, so it’s very personal for us. And the elevated rhetoric around Iran is problematic and seems like an intentional effort by the Trump administration to bring us to war. And though as a legislator at the state level, I’m not dealing with foreign affairs, we get so many messages from Iranians because they see our office as a resource they can trust. And so we get so many emails and direct messages from Iranians, whether they’re students in Florida struggling with their visas or Iranians who are on a waitlist to get a visa, their parents are stuck somewhere. We’ve been working with our federal lawmakers to try to provide a pathway for them to get support, but our office is inundated with requests from Iranians and Iranian-Americans struggling. And then at the same time, the idea of war with Iran is dangerous for our country. And I feel like as one of the few Iranian-Americans elected in this country and the first ever in Florida, that it’s important that we give this issue of voice from the perspective of those who know the country better than most do. And I’ve been really humbled to be in spaces with other Iranian-American elected officials and advocates diving deep into the point that, for many of those who are making decisions about Iran, they’ve never been to Iran, they don’t speak or read Farsi and they don’t have a good grasp of what war with Iran can look like. What’s the nationalism energy in Iran, right? There’s so many unanswered questions by these administration folks that we have to hold them accountable and ask the tough question. And I’ve been a longtime advocate too on human rights in Iran. When I was at the University of Central Florida and my twin sister and I were president, vice-president of the Iranian student organization, and in 2009 when there were protests in Iran over their fraudulent elections, we were collecting human rights petitions, we were wearing the green wristband as solidarity. So this issue runs deep for me too as an activist. And so, I’m doing my best to not only lift up the concerns about the administration’s approach to Iran, but at the legislature helping to teach my colleagues about Iran, the Iranian people. And we hosted the first ever Persian New Year party in Tallahassee. The Persian new year, called Nowruz, falls in March with the spring equinox. And so we did a party to celebrate it with Persian traditions and had over 150 people attend, including 15 lawmakers, three who were Republicans. And I’m really proud of that because I do think, teaching folks at a state level who might one day run for Congress or to be in a federal position, when they know that there’s an Iranian-American that is one of their colleagues, I hope it’ll help them think twice about supporting rhetoric that is unnecessarily elevated and escalated, and think about the people of Iran and what would be best for them.

John Nichols: You grew up in an immigrant family, do you listen to Iranian music? How much of your daily life is this?

Anna Eskamani: So we try to integrate a little bit of Persian culture into everything we do. And in our Orlando Office and in our Tallahassee office, we have Persian art on the walls, we have a Persian rug, we have Persian pillows that are ages old and part of the Persian New Year is actually jumping over fire. And the part of that symbolism is you give the fire your yellow, your sickness, and you take its red, its heat, its energy. And so behind me in Tallahassee in my office is a photo of me, like a blown up photo of me jumping over fire and a part of it is just demonstrating and sharing our culture. It’s a good conversation starter, but I do think it’s like a reminder to lobbyists and lawmakers to take me seriously.

John Nichols: Watch out. This woman jumps over fire.

Anna Eskamani: Exactly. I am unafraid and always intentional. And so yeah, but I do try to keep track of Iranian … Persian news and music. I have a few different Persian rap artists on my phone and things like that. 

John Nichols: You mentioned Persian rap, is there anyone who we should be listening to?

Anna Eskamani: There is a really good band called Tik Taak and they do some really good Persian rap and I think all folks need to remember that young Iranians just want to be young people. Like the majority of the population, Iran is post-revolution babies. So they’re approaching their thirties/forties now, and they don’t have a connection to the Islamic Republic of Iran at all. These are folks that, they want to live life like the rest of us, they want to engage in American artists and American TV shows. They want to travel, they want to have a good job, they want to raise a family. Some don’t want to raise a family and want to live life as independents. I mean it’s really just incredible how many similarities there are between us as Americans and the people of Iran. And I do think engaging with Persian music and Iranian media can kind of help close those gaps too.

John Nichols: Anna Eskamani, your energy and your engagement is very impressive. And my sense is you’re giving people hope in Florida, across the country and around the world. Thanks so much for joining us on Next Left.

Anna Eskamani: Well, I’ll tell you, I am the sum of all those around me, so thanks for being a part of it and really grateful for the opportunity to share a little bit of Orlando with you today.

Subscribe to Next Left on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.