The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two state lawmakers confront a deadly pandemic, a disputed election and a divided, angry America

Pennsylvania state Rep. Frank Ryan, who represents the 101st Legislative District, in Cornwall, Pa. (Andrew Mangum for The Washington Post)

Two state lawmakers — one in Florida and one in Pennsylvania — were wrestling with how to repair the damage from a terrible year that had sapped their constituents’ trust in each other and their nation.

State Reps. Anna Eskamani, 30, and Francis “Frank” X. Ryan, 69, couldn’t be more different. She is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, a rising star in the Florida Democratic Party who still owes $3,000 on her Honda hatchback, yet is frequently touted as a potential candidate for governor in 2022. He is a conservative Republican, a veteran who served in Iraq, and a certified public accountant who ran for office in the hope that he could help put Pennsylvania’s finances on firmer footing.

Now both were closing out the year convinced that the deadly pandemic, the government’s uneven response and the chaotic endgame of the Trump presidency had broken something.

In Florida, calls from desperate people, running out of money and unable to navigate the state’s broken unemployment insurance system, were pouring into Eskamani’s office.

“My husband and I still have not received a dime from unemployment, despite being told we are going to,” one Orlando woman wrote.

“I’m struggling with two kids,” another begged.

“Need help to keep my hotel room I lose in the morning,” wrote a father who had lost his job and was caring for a disabled daughter.

Many who called weren’t from Eskamani’s Orlando district and had no idea whether she was a Republican or a Democrat. They had seen her name in social media posts and were desperate for someone in government who would pick up the phone, empathize with their agony and try to help. “This is not easy work and it’s not cheery,” Eskamani said. But it was the minimum she believed she could do as an elected official; a first step to winning back the trust of those who had lost faith in their government and the Democratic Party, which had been battered in Florida in November.

In Pennsylvania, Ryan was worrying about a different electoral defeat that had provoked a very different crisis of confidence. He didn’t trust the election results in his state and knew that many of his constituents didn’t either. In early December, the retired Marine joined dozens of state lawmakers who wrote to Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation asking them not to recognize its electors.

Ryan hasn’t embraced many of the conspiracy theories being circulated by fellow Republicans. Nor did he endorse President Trump’s false claim of a “landslide” win. Rather, Ryan carefully staked out what he considered to be a more nuanced position: Last-minute changes to the mail-in ballot process had made it impossible to know with full certainty who had won the election.

Like Eskamani, he believed that he was helping to repair a broken system. “This is not about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans,” Ryan said. “It’s about whether or not people feel they can have a voice.” But many Democrats in his district believe he is silencing their voices by enabling the corrosion of the very system he was purporting to defend.

“This is violence in our country that you are part of causing because you aren’t helping the people you represent accept the loss of an election,” wrote one critic on his Facebook page.

'Too much lying'

Like so many young, female, liberal politicians in the country, Eskamani’s path to elected office began with Trump’s 2016 victory. “I was just crying, like cough-crying,” she said of the moment she learned that Trump had prevailed.

Trump had campaigned on banning Muslims, like her parents, from immigrating to the United States. “It’s really personal,” she said. “It’s like my entire identity is grounded on welcoming immigrants and the American Dream.”

The morning after Election Day, she was ordering breakfast at a Panera Bread restaurant and wondering who had voted for Trump. “It was such a silly feeling,” she said. “It was this feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, people don’t want me here.’ ” A few months later Eskamani, who was working at Planned Parenthood, spoke at the Women’s March in Orlando, drawing boisterous cheers from the crowd.

“People were like, ‘Who’s that girl?’ ” she recalled.

The reaction convinced her that she could run for elected office and possibly win. In November 2018 she flipped a Republican seat.

Her defining moment as an elected leader came when the pandemic was ravaging Florida’s economy and tens of thousands of Floridians were going broke waiting for help from the state’s beleaguered unemployment office.

This spring, Eskamani and her team of three full-time staffers shifted their focus to helping citizens across the state collect their benefits. So far, Eskamani’s office has helped about 21,000 unemployed Floridians with their claims by forwarding their information to the state’s unemployment office and, when answers weren’t immediately forthcoming, calling on their behalf. A Tampa Bay Times analysis in September found that her office accounted for about 25 percent of all state lawmaker interventions during the first six months of the pandemic.

She also committed to giving away her part-time lawmaker salary — about $29,000 a year — to Floridians who were waiting on their claims and on the verge of losing their cars or homes.

The 2020 election had been devastating for Florida Democrats, who lost seats in Congress, the state Senate and the House. The morning after the Nov. 3 drubbing, Eskamani let loose with her frustrations. She blasted the party for halfheartedly campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage ballot initiative that passed with 60 percent backing. The state party endorsed the measure, but Eskamani insisted that Democratic candidates, concerned about offending corporate donors, hadn’t championed it.

“You have to have values,” Eskamani said. “You have to stand for something.”

Because Republicans controlled the governor’s office, the state House and Senate, Eskamani had little power to pass legislation. Answering calls from unemployed Floridians, offering empathy and helping them to collect their benefits was one way of showing her values.

Meanwhile, the anger and mistrust swirled around her. As Eskamani was waiting to take the stage at Orlando’s socially distanced and outdoor Christmas pageant, a liberal city councilwoman told her about a friend who had recently died of covid-19. The cause of death was initially recorded as dementia. But the family — fearful that Florida’s medical establishment was conspiring with the state’s Republican governor to play down the pandemic — insisted it be changed to covid-19.

“That’s heartbreaking,” Eskamani said. “Too much loss.”

“Too much lying,” the city councilwoman replied.

The following night, Eskamani took part in an online panel discussion of Iranian American politicians that included Rep.-elect Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) who recently became the first Iranian American elected to Congress. The panel’s moderator wanted to celebrate the lawmakers’ shared Iranian American identity.

Eskamani’s eye drifted toward the more pointed queries that the moderator, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, ignored.

“Do all of the panelists acknowledge Joe Biden as the President-Elect?” one read.

Another online audience member asked: “Trump has refused to acknowledge that Biden won the election; do you believe that our elected representatives need to step up to defend our democracy?”

The moderator instead asked the panelists what they were doing to promote “bridge building” in their communities. Eskamani talked about her work on behalf of unemployed Floridians. “An eviction notice doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” she said.

President Trump lost his bid for re-election, but he and many of his most fervent supporters have refused to accept it. (Video: The Washington Post)

In 2020 she took pride that she — a liberal daughter of Iranian immigrants — had increased her margin of victory over 2018 and won two precincts in her district that had also voted for Trump.

The following day, one of those Trump-Eskamani voters — an out-of-work pharmaceutical worker — called her. Earlier in the year, Eskamani had helped the woman expedite a stalled unemployment insurance claim. Unless Congress acted quickly to pass a new pandemic relief bill, the woman’s checks were set to stop the day after Christmas.

“It’s cruel,” she said. “I don’t know who to blame . . . both parties. I keep saying, ‘Please just give in to Nancy [Pelosi].’ God Help us.”

“It’s torture to keep families waiting right up until Christmas,” Eskamani agreed.

This time, all she could offer was sympathy.

'Just needed to vent'

The day before Thanksgiving, Ryan journeyed to a crowded hotel ballroom in Gettysburg, Pa., to listen as Trump and his legal team laid out their case for overturning Biden’s victory in the state.

Just before it was Ryan’s turn to ask questions at the hearing, Trump called in from the White House.

One of the president’s attorneys held her cellphone up to a mic so that everyone could hear Trump complain that Republican poll watchers were not allowed to do their jobs; that dead people received mail-in ballots; that the entire election was “rigged.”

“Trump! Trump! Trump!” the crowd chanted after the president hung up.

“What you have just heard guarantees that 100 years from now that this is the most important public hearing ever held by this Senate committee,” said the state senator leading the hearing.

Trump’s assertions weren’t new to Ryan. He’d heard many of them from his own constituents. When one of them insisted to him that someone had secretly “switched” their vote to Biden, Ryan let them talk and then tried to gently get them to admit that they couldn’t see inside the machines and, therefore, had no evidence of such tampering.

“By the time they’re done, they usually go: ‘Well, I just needed to vent,’ ” Ryan said.

When it was Ryan’s turn to question Trump’s legal team, he made no effort to correct his commander in chief or demand hard evidence of fraud. Instead, he called the vote in Pennsylvania a “travesty” and talked about his experience overseeing the 2005 election in war-torn Iraq, which he said was better run than the American balloting in 2020.

“What I’m concerned about is the remedy,” Ryan told Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. “How do we go from here?”

Ryan ran for office in 2016 hoping that he could use his training as a certified public accountant to fix the state’s budget. “Financial issues don’t know whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” he said, quoting a Pennsylvania official from the other side of the aisle. He broke with many of his fellow Republicans in his opposition to the death penalty, boasted of passing bills with bipartisan support and didn’t consider himself to be a die-hard Trump supporter.

He said he approached the voting fraud allegations with the steely objectivity of a retired Marine colonel and CPA, raising questions before the election about last-minute changes made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to the mail-balloting process. After the election he reiterated those concerns on social media and a lawsuit targeting Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf (D).

Ryan’s fear: All the unanswered questions surrounding him were undermining Americans’ already shaky trust in their government. He worried that many Pennsylvanians had stopped listening to the governor and other state officials when it comes to measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“That’s dangerous because covid-19 is real. It’s for real,” he said. “But the minute people lose faith, that’s what you can see, civil disobedience.”

The time, Ryan believed, had come for an attempt at unity. On Dec. 9, Pennsylvania’s governor announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. “Please keep him, his wife and his entire family in your prayers,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Regardless of our differences, we should all exercise compassion when someone is not feeling well.”

Both Republicans and Democrats took to the comments section to castigate the other side.

“It’s interesting that you have to ask your supporters for dignity,” a left-leaning woman wrote.

“Let’s not forget the outright celebration the left had when Trump had covid,” a right-leaning man countered. Accusations of insensitivity gave way to heated allegations of voter fraud. Ryan tried to calm everyone down.

“Both sides of the aisle” had behaved insensitively over the last four years, he wrote. “I would hope you would understand that. I will keep you in my prayers.”

But the cyber yelling didn’t abate.

“Thank you for praying for me, but I believe you need more prayers than me,” a liberal replied. “Being part of the destruction of your country is a lot to answer for.”

'I am begging'

Another week was drawing to a close. In Washington, lawmakers were dealing with a $900 billion emergency economic relief package that they had been haggling over since July.

In Pennsylvania, Ryan worried about the small-business owners in his district, who were suffering massive losses because of the pandemic and were frustrated by government mandates that seemed inconsistent and unfair, often appearing to give big corporations more options than small employers. He eagerly shared news about the newly approved coronavirus vaccine, which promised to bring the nightmare to a close. Still, he knew that many of his constituents didn’t trust the government at any level when it comes to this health crisis.

In Orlando, Eskamani was gearing up for her regular Friday afternoon virtual office hours. The pleas for assistance navigating the state’s broken unemployment system were already flooding in. Eskamani promised to introduce legislation in 2021 to make the system more responsive and boost benefits to the jobless. But those fixes — if they somehow managed to get through the legislature — were months away and people were desperate now.

“Please I am begging you for help,” began one message.

“Ms. Eskamani . . . don’t know what to do any more,” wrote another Floridian who briefly took a temporary job and had been fighting for eight weeks to get her benefits reactivated.

“We’ll definitely find out what’s going on with your claim,” Eskamani promised.

A few constituents called into thank her for helping them retrieve money they were owed by the state. But most of the messages spoke to a growing sense of desperation and anger toward a government that seemed unable or uninterested in helping them.

“I cannot believe that nine months into this Rep. Anna is still doing [the state unemployment agency’s] job for them,” wrote one woman.

“I have no faith in Congress,” added another.

“I have not received money since July,” wrote a third. “I am living in my car.”

“Ugh,” Eskamani said and grimaced. “That’s not good. Let me make sure we’re helping this person.”