In an unassuming office building in northern Orlando, Florida House candidate Anna Eskamani recently sat and listened as tired teacher after tired teacher described a teetering education system that they believe is hobbling educators and leaving students in their district behind.
No news cameras were trained on the 28-year-old daughter of Iranian immigrants as she sat and listened, her microphone was not propped up on a podium with an official seal. But the office she is hoping to be elected to is one of the most important – if often overlooked — kinds of jobs in the American political system.
While American voters and pundits focus on candidates in the battle for control of the US House and Senate in the 2018 midterm elections, candidates like Ms Eskamani are running for offices that carry very little glory. Most people have no clue who their state representative is, and even less interest in finding out. But, while senators and congresspeople are frequently household names, the reality is, it is lesser known candidates who will often have the most tangible impact on constituent lives.
“They really need fighters,” Ms Eskamani told The Independent of the Orlando-area constituents whose lives could be impacted by her policies — from health care and education to the roads that connect those hospitals and schools — if she is elected to serve in Tallahassee.
She recalled losing her mother to cancer when she was 13-years-old, and the financial burden that medical crisis put on her working class family that had sought the American dream after her parents moved to the US from Iran. It remains a major motivator behind the work she is doing — and her past work at Planned Parenthood where she organised for six years, and as a campus organiser for college Democrats informs that perspective.
She thinks she can help families like her from the state assembly, by pushing for the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and other services to reduce the financial burden: “My family needed a fighter, and never had one.”
Ms Eskamani is running for one of over 7,383 state legislative seats in the United States that make decisions on all matters impacting the day-to-day lives of Americans — but are often overlooked during election cycles as bigger names with massive campaign war chests dominate airwaves and television advertising.
As an elected official in the Florida House of Representatives, Ms Eskamani would have a say in the policies that have teachers feeling like they are in straight jackets. The self-described progressive Democrat would also have a platform to advocate for Medicaid expansion — like the proposal to expand healthcare access in the state that has considerable support and would help some of the state’s least fortunate with access to healthcare but has been rejected previously by Florida Governor Rick Scott.
The list of responsibilities goes on: Most prison sentences, potholes, zoning for business or residential zones — all of these are considered by state or local elected officials.
“Almost everything that you do day to day in your life is governed at the state and local level,” John Cluverius, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said. “You wake up and you get on roads that are funded at the state level. Potholes that are repaired at the local level. You might take public transit that is operated at the local or regional level.”
Control of state legislatures has seen very little national media attention in the United States, even as that power has consolidated into Republican hands over the past decade.
Republicans currently hold 56 per cent of all legislator positions in the country, and 66 per cent of all state legislative chambers. Sixty-three percent of every state has both chambers controlled by Republicans, and 51 per cent of the states in the US have both the state legislatures and governor’s mansions controlled by Republicans.
Going forward, the winners of these elections will have a say in more than just those policies as we’ll — after the 2020 Census, American legislative districts will be redrawn. It will be legislatures, and governors, who are in charge of that process that could reimagine the federal government as well.
“We’re just not socialized to care. If you think of the socialization of what happens when you’re in an American kindergarten: What makes America so great? Well: We get to pick our president,” James Battista, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, said when asked why these races are often overlooked. “It’s not that we get to pick our state legislature or we get to have a vote every year on whether or not to approve the school system’s budget for the year.”
To virtually every story she heard in the teachers union building, Ms Eskamani sat and listened attentively. At times she would snap her fingers in agreement with points made, like an audience member at a slam poetry reading. To some teachers she emphasised that, should she be elected, she will rely on their expertise and experience to build consensus on the issues facing the state.
When US Representative Stephanie Murphy — who also attended the meeting — had to leave because of a tight schedule, Ms Eskamani was able to stay and listen for at least an hour longer, continuing to hear from the constituents. Both women had rushed over to speak to the teachers after a glitzy rally alongside some of America’s top politicians earlier in the day — US Senator Bill Nelson and former Vice President Joe Biden among them — but Ms Eskamani was able to lead a schedule that got her there earlier, and kept her there later.
For her, the past year of running in the current political climate — she is a woman running for elected office in a year when a record number of women are running, she is the daughter of immigrants in a national climate where immigrants are under attack — is an opportunity to give back, and to try and focus on those local issues that matter to her neighbours.
“I want to craft a community and a state where its not a zero sum game anymore, where everyone can win,” Ms Eskamani said, noting that she has reached out to business leaders, but also wears an LGBT pin every day to keep social issues with her at all times. “I think if I can be a facilitator to this experiment of American democracy and try to make it work, why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that process.”
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