Meet some of the new Florida House Democrats

House reps
Top, from left: Geraldine Thompson, Fentrice Driskell, Joy Goff-Marcil. Bottom, from left: Jennifer Webb, Adam Hattersley, Anna Eskamani, Cindy Polo. Credit House of Representatives website.

The much hyped “Blue Wave” that Democrats were hoping would manifest itself during this year’s midterm elections ultimately did live up to the hype around most of the country, but not so much  in the Sunshine State.

Still, Democrats did manage to flip seven seats in the state House of Representatives, and six of the newly elected are women. With  47 representatives in the 120-member Florida House, Democrats had their best performance since they won six seats in 2006. While still far behind the Republicans, it’s the most Democrats in the Florida House since 1998. In the Florida Senate, Democrats added just one seat, and now have 17 members in the 40-member body.

With the entire Legislature in Tallahassee last week for orientation, the Phoenix caught up with five of the seven Democrats who won in previously Republican-held districts.

All five that we spoke to were filled with enthusiasm about being part of the Legislature. And despite their overwhelming status as members of the minority political party, each spoke about their hopes of finding common ground with Republicans to get bills passed.

One of the best known new House Democrats is Anna Eskamani (HD 47), a 28-year-old Orlando resident who shared space with 47 other first-time female candidates running for public office on the cover of Time last January.

For the voluble Eskamani, a former Planned Parenthood staffer who proudly claims to be the first Iranian-American ever elected to any public office in Florida, it wasn’t always a smooth ride to Tallahassee.

Florida Republicans sent out mailers attacking her for her vocabulary, charging that her “vulgar” potty mouth represented “everything wrong with politics today.”

Eskamani acknowledges using a few curse words “in some rally environments over the last few years,” but says that it would have been damaging to women candidates overall if she ended up losing because of the GOP strategy of attacking her.

“Not only did we flip a seat, not only did we demonstrate the power of grassroots organizing, not only did we elect an Iranian-American, a former Planned Parenthood staffer…but it also speaks to a message to women and girls everywhere that you can be yourself and you should run for office, too,” she says.

Eskamani vows to hold Governor-Elect Ron DeSantis accountable, but says she has hopes she can work with him on environmental issues, noting his “free market mentality” that led him to take a stance against sugar subsidies.

She says she is very concerned about abortion rights because DeSantis will be picking three new justices to the Florida Supreme Court, and adding more conservatives to the bench could affect the court’s view of the privacy clause in the state Constitution. In past years, the high court has overturned abortion legislation, citing Floridians’ Constitutional right to privacy.

Some social conservatives have openly discussed the potential that a newly constituted Supreme Court would interpret the privacy clause differently.

One of the biggest upsets in South Florida on election night was Cindy Polo’s victory over her much better funded GOP opponent Frank Mingo in House District 103. The open seat was previously held by a Republican, and Mingo, the vice mayor of Miami Lakes, had the strong backing of incoming Republican Speaker of the House Jose Oliva.

Polo was a self-described stay at home mom who became motivated to run for office after the February shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. She truly caught momentum when she spoke out forcefully against the rock mining explosions that have been reverberating through the neighborhoods in northwest Miami-Dade and southwest Broward counties for several years. The state has said the quarries are being blasted under the seismic limit set by law.

“That is definitely one of the things that I need to educate a lot of the lawmakers about, especially those in our delegation,” Polo says. “Because if you don’t live in the area, then you’re kind of immune to it.”

Polo notes that Speaker Oliva also spoke critically about the mining issue during the campaign.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue and he did commit to passing legislation that would protect homeowners, and so my goal is to hold him to that,” she says.

Polo admits she has had to shake off her  disappointment about the loss by Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, and says she’s excited to be part of the largest Democratic caucus in the House in two decades. She thinks their added ranks can make it easier to persuade just one Republican on a particular committee to switch sides, rather than having to try to move two or three members across the aisle.

“When I sat in our freshman orientation, the first thing you see is how many men are in the pictures and the directory. But when I walked into the room where all the freshmen were, to see so much diversity and so many women specifically, I think that just shows that progress doesn’t happen overnight, but that we have to keep chipping away,” Polo says.

Another seat that the Democrats flipped from red to blue was in the Pinellas County House District 69 race, where Jennifer Webb won in an open seat that had previously been held by Republican Kathleen Peters.

Webb says the ideological makeup of the district (37% Republicans, 35% Democrats and 23% independents), and its “Libertarian bent” compelled her to spotlight the issues that brought the community together.

Those issues include helping improve services for Floridians who have mental health issues and are struggling with substance abuse; protecting the environment and investing in infrastructure; and pushing for a strong K-12 education system and vocational training.

“They don’t like the divisiveness on the national level,” she says about her constituents. “They want somebody who says ‘hey, there’s more that brings us together than divides us,’ and so I think that’s what resonated with them.”

Webb’s election is also one for the history books: She is the first openly elected lesbian in Florida politics, and the first gay legislator who is married.

There aren’t many true “swing districts” in the Florida House, but the House District 63 seat in Hillsborough County has certainly been one over the past decade. In recent years, Republican Shawn Harrison won several elections there, even though its boundaries feature several thousand more Democrats than Republicans.

But Democrats voted in record numbers in this year’s midterm, and Fentrice Driskell, a 39-year-old attorney running for office for the first time, knocked off Harrison by almost seven percentage points.

“Frankly, after the 2016 election, I looked around and didn’t like what I was seeing,” Driskell said last week on the House floor after she was sworn in as a member of the Legislature.

“Tallahassee’s broken,” she continued. “It’s tilted in favor of the powerful and the politically connected rather than our hard-working Florida families, our seniors and our small business owners, so I looked around and decided that I wanted to be part of the change to move things forward and in a better direction.”

Bread-and-butter Democratic issues like public education, health care, the environment and transportation were what Driskell focused on during the campaign.

She’s thrilled to be a member of the Legislature. “I take that responsibility very seriously and intend to work very hard at this job. Learn every aspect of this job. So that I can do the best possible job for the people of HD 63.”

Yet she does express a few regrets about what might have been.

“Having Andrew Gillum as governor would have been transformative in that not only is he a dynamic leader and I think he’s the type who can rally people around a cause and really move them towards a vision, and in terms of Democrats having control over a line-item veto would have just been phenomenal,  and with Nikki Fried winning we would have had two Democrats in the Cabinet so that could have been a game changer but what we have to do now is rally around our leaders,” she says.

Eastern Hillsborough County resident Adam Hattersley says he never became very political until the 2016 election, when he and his wife campaigned for Hillary Clinton for president and for Democrat Andrew Warren in his upset victory for State Attorney in Hillsborough.

He insists that the idea of running for office was never in his vision plan, however, and he only began entertaining the idea after local Democrats began “blowing up” his phone shortly after former County Commissioner and Republican state Senator Ronda Storms announced that she would enter the House District 59 race in the spring.

Storms was loathed by the LGBTQ community in Hillsborough after she successfully pushed a policy barring the county from recognizing gay pride events in 2005 (the Commission repealed that ban in 2013).

“My brother-in-law is gay. He and his husband adopted a baby here in Florida last year,” says the 40-year-old Hattersley. “And we wanted to make sure that … they had the same opportunities that the rest of us have, so we had to step up and fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.”

Democrats came to Hattersley in part because of his sterling resume: A former Navy submarine officer who served with an Army unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom (where he was awarded a Bronze Star) who transitioned to becoming a successful small businessman, running a print and promotional item distributorship with his wife in traditionally Republican  eastern Hillsborough.

Hattersley is the rare freshman legislator coming to the session by actively campaigning on a specific proposal he’s bringing to the Legislature to address sexual assault.

Called “Me Too No More,” the bill would eliminate any future statutes of limitations for all sex crimes in Florida. It would give law enforcement better tools and training to arrest and prosecute sex criminals. And it calls for public-private partnerships to fund testing for  thousands of rape kits that have been left untested for years.

Two other Democrats flipped GOP-controlled seats in the House this year, but the Phoenix hasn’t yet had a chance to talk with them.

One is former legislator Geraldine Thompson, who came back to win the House District 44 seat in southwestern Orange County, a seat that Orlando Rising reported was considered such a safe Republican seat that no previous Democrat had ever been competitive there.

And the seventh seat that moved to the Democrats was in the House District 30 race in Orange/Seminole counties, where Maitland City Councilwoman Joy Goff-Marcil defeated Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes.

 

 

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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