Eight UCF alumni who were running for the Florida Legislature won their districts in Tuesday’s election.
Although they don’t necessarily agree on political issues, pursued different careers and attended UCF at different times, they clearly share a passion for politics.
Amber Mariano ’17, a Republican, was re-elected in District 36 in New Port Richey two years after becoming the youngest person elected to Florida’s House of Representatives. She will begin her second term in the Legislature at age 23.
Mariano says her father’s hard work as a Pasco County commissioner planted a seed for a career in politics. She says she was also inspired in 2008 when Sen. John McCain chose former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate.
When Mariano studied political science at UCF as a Burnett Honors Scholar, she became politically involved on and off campus. She interned for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and participated in UCF’s Legislative Scholars Internship program.
After her internship, Mariano joined UCF’s Student Government Association, which she says was her favorite part of her college experience.
“I learned so much and met so many different people. The stakes aren’t as high, but it’s still the same atmosphere,” Mariano says. “It was a good stepping stone to learning how that process would work in the real world.”
Mariano was first elected to her seat in 2016. She says the opportunities she seized while at UCF helped her follow her dreams and can help current students if they have the passion to find them.
“What’s so cool about UCF is that it’s so big and there are so many opportunities,” Mariano says. “But since it’s so big you have to go after those opportunities yourself. You have to work for them.”
Anna Eskamani ’12 ’15MNM ’15MPA, a Democrat and first-time candidate, was elected in District 47 in Orange County.
Eskamani began harnessing the power of activism at the age of 10 when she presented her principal with a petition to share a lunch period with a friend. The Burnett Honors Scholar’s interest in politics grew from there, but she says it was really her mother’s death from cancer in 2004 that motivated her to stay in the community and attend UCF.
UCF was already a family tradition. She remembers playing by the Reflecting Pond with her twin sister, Ida Eskamani ’12 ’16MPA, while their father, an Iranian immigrant, studied for a degree in electrical engineering. Eskamani majored in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in women’s studies, and received master’s degrees in nonprofit management and public administration. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in UCF’s public affairs program.
Eskamani says student organizations at UCF helped her become a better leader on campus and in the Orlando community. She was the women’s caucus chair and eventually the state women’s caucus chair for the College Democrats at UCF. She was also a member of the Iranian Student Organization and the Political Science Honor Society.
“I always want to be humble and kind and never forget where I come from, and UCF is part of that” says Eskamani, who was featured with other women as first-time candidates on the cover of Time magazine in January.
Eskamani led the Keep PBS in Orlando campaign in 2011 to support educational programing, and she planned a rally called Rise Up UCF at a legislation meeting in front of the UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center.
Eskamani says the best advice she has for current students is to find out what drives them, commit to it and follow through.
“If it’s an issue, candidate, nonprofit to volunteer with… figure out your passion,” Eskamani says. “And if there is none, start your own.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith ’03, a Democrat, was re-elected in District 49 in Orange County for a second term.
When he was first elected in 2016, Smith became Florida’s first openly LGBTQ Latino lawmaker. Since then, he co-founded and has served as the chair of the Legislative Progressive Caucus.
He also co-sponsored legislation that provided $2.5 million in funding for UCF Restores, a clinical research center in the university’s Department of Psychology that uses virtual reality to help veterans, active-duty service members, and first-responders overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
A marketing graduate, he was instrumental in the creation of the Pulse mural on UCF’s Student Union in honor of UCF student Juan Ramon Guerrero and alumnus Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen, who were two of the 49 shooting victims at the Orlando nightclub.
Chris Latvala ’04, a Republican, was re-elected in District 67 (areas of Largo and Clearwater), where he has held the seat since 2014. He serves on several subcommittees, including criminal justice, education and highway and waterway safety.
The son of a former Florida senator, Latvala lives in Clearwater and is vice president of GCI Printing Services.
Mike La Rosa ’12, a Republican, was re-elected in District 42 in Osceola and Polk counties. He was first elected in 2012 and later served as Majority Deputy Whip in 2014.
“I am beyond humbled to have won my last and final election for District 42,” La Rosa wrote in a Facebook post. “First, I have to give thanks to God on another win. Second, to all the voters, the support over the past six years has been incredibly humbling and so appreciated. Third, to all my volunteers, you are more appreciated then you’ll ever know. I will continue to work hard for all of my constituents in District 42, God bless always!”
A UCF graduate with a degree in interpersonal communications, he went on to join his brother in the family business, La Rosa Commercial Real Estate.
Randolph Bracy ’07MBA ’08MSBM, a Democrat, represents the District 11 in Orange County in the Florida Senate. He served in the District 45 of the Florida House of Representatives from 2012 to 16 before he was elected senator in 2016.
Rene Plasencia ’96, a Republican, won his bid for re-election in District 50 in East Orlando and Brevard County.
The Orlando native works for Orange County Public Schools and first won election to the Florida House in 2014. He initially represented District 49.
He serves as vice chair of the Health Quality Subcommittee and PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee.
He studied psychology at UCF and ran track for the men’s program, which has since been discontinued. He served as president of UCF Athletics’ student-athlete advisory board and went on to become a coach for track and cross country at Colonial High School.
Tom Leek ’92, a Republican, was re-elected in District 25 in Port Orange, Daytona and New Smryna Beach for a second term.
Leek was first elected in 2016 and serves as chair of the Select Subcommittee on Member Conduct and vice chair of the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in history at UCF, he studied law at Stetson University and went on to become a managing partner of Cobb Cole, a law firm in Daytona Beach. Before assuming his role in the Legislature, Leek was appointed by the UCF Board of Trustees to a select strategic planning committee in 2015 to help shape the university’s strategic plan, Collective Impact.
“[My wife] Michelle and I wake up today incredibly humbled and honored for the opportunity to continue to serve our community,” Leek said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “We are so grateful to all of you for your support and the many hours you gave to our effort. I hope to make you proud.”
Two other current state representatives – Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, and Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee – also are Knights. Both have taken graduate classes at UCF.
Antone has served two stints in the state House of Representatives – from 2002-2006 and from 2012 to the present. He is a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute.
Alexander is a nonprofit executive and a graduate of Florida A&M University, where he also served as student body president. He won re-election without opposition this fall.