On Tuesday night, the first night of the Florida Legislature’s committee week, the lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida wined and dined freshman legislators inside the members-only Governor’s Club in downtown Tallahassee.
Just blocks away on the third floor of the Capitol building, a newly constituted Legislative Progressive Caucus sat down at plastic tables to meet.
Anna Eskamani, a newly elected Orlando Democrat, ate spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar, and members chatted casually in the House Democratic Office.
Eskamani and other freshman representatives Tina Polsky, Adam Hattersley and Dotie Joseph turned down their invite to the annual soiree hosted by Associated Industries, which is backed by money from industries like sugar and fossil fuels, electric companies and private hospitals.
Eskamani made her absence known in protest. She tweeted her response, saying Associated Industries member groups are “hurting our state and its people through their business decisions and legislative priorities.”
The representative, who met with both Associated Industries and the Florida Chamber of Commerce during her campaign, added that the venue was also a reason she declined. The membership-only environment does not welcome everyday Floridians, she said.
According to an email read aloud to the Times/Herald, the invite promised freshman members a chance to “stop by and say hello to some of the most active corporate leaders in Florida.” The offerings did not appeal to Eskamani.
“I didn’t come here to go to ritzy parties,” she said. “If you ever have an icky feeling going into a space, then you need to trust your gut feeling and make a decision around it.”
An email chain in which Eskamani told other Democrats about her decision met with mixed results.
Hattersley of Hillsborough County, for instance, said he attended the caucus meeting simply because he got that invite first.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who founded the Progressive Caucus in 2017, said he “can’t begrudge any colleague for attending, depending on what their rationale is.”
“If they’re there to network, as long as they have a good voting record, then I guess that’s fine,” he added.
He said he hopes to foster a community among new progressive members at the caucus meeting and expand the group from its current membership of four senators and 10 representatives.
“We’re not going to have free booze, and I hope that doesn’t hurt our attendance,” Smith joked. “We are promoting an agenda that is opposite of what AIF is pushing.”
No one at Associated Industries responded to a request for comment.
The public boycott on social media echoes a national conversation around orientation programs for new members, sparked by criticism from House Democratic lawmakers on the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Bipartisan Orientation Program.
The orientation program is pitched as a way for freshman lawmakers to learn about life on Capitol Hill, but it drew criticism from freshman Democrats who called out the panels chock-full of CEOs and lobbyists.
Rep.-elect Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) told the Washington Post that she used her time with executives at the event to stress the importance of having labor represented.
“I am grateful to the Kennedy school for facilitating this week of orientation. Our class absolutely would have benefited from having labor leaders at the program,” Stevens said in a text message.
On Thursday Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) criticized the event on Twitter for including corporate CEOs but no labor leaders or activists to talk to the new members.
“Lobbyists are here. Goldman Sachs is here,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Where‘s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?”