Incoming representative Carlos Guillermo Smith brings a progressive agenda to the Florida House 

Fighting back

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Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

Like a typical suit-and-tie lawmaker, Carlos Guillermo Smith is comfortable discussing the nuances of public policy and debating the details of legislation on the floor of the Florida House.

But what sets House District 49's newest representative apart is how easily a bullhorn slips into his hand as he leads chants in a protest against Donald Trump, discrimination or efforts to stymie the minimum wage, all while wearing slim jeans and a fashionable blazer. And he's also not afraid to be the lone voice of disagreement among friends. When President Barack Obama came to campaign for Hillary Clinton in Orlando, Smith joined with a small group to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then later went on to introduce the president to a crowd of thousands.

"I'm going to find a way to leverage my unapologetic grass-roots identity with this new role," he says. "If I have to motivate people to get involved by grabbing a bullhorn or knocking on doors, I'll do that."

A longtime progressive activist, the 35-year-old Democrat is the first openly queer Latinx to serve in the Florida Legislature.

Politics isn't the first path he imagined his life taking. After being raised by a Canadian mother and Peruvian father in Boca Raton, he moved to Orlando and graduated with a business degree from the University of Central Florida in 2003. Smith went on to work in Men's Wearhouse stores in Florida and Georgia for eight years (and, interestingly enough, once participated in the game show Fear Factor, where he was forced to wear a helmet full of eels). But Smith says he felt turned off by the world of retail after company executives focused more on profits and less on people.

His life changed in 2008. President Barack Obama's historic win as the country's first African-American president pushed Smith into the political fray, first as an activist and then slowly up the rungs of power. He worked as a legislative aide for former state Reps. Scott Randolph and Joe Saunders in the Florida House and was elected chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party in 2013. More recently, he worked as the governmental affairs manager for Equality Florida, the state's largest advocacy group for the LGBTQ community. District 49 was up for the taking by Smith after incumbent Rene Plasencia announced he would run for election in District 50, which was safer for the Republican.

The election of Donald Trump has been a tough pill to swallow for many Democrats in Florida, especially Bernie Sanders supporters like Smith who voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in hopes they could push for progressive policies under her presidency. Still, under a President Trump, Smith hopes to collaborate with his fellow legislators when he can and push for progress, such as by fully funding the Bright Futures scholarship, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, safeguarding women's reproductive rights, fighting structural racism and income inequality, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and expanding anti-discrimination workplace protections to include LGBTQ people.

"A lot of people are definitely disappointed in the election results," Smith says, "but here's the thing: This is our democracy. We don't have to accept the bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny that seem to be core components of Trump's campaign. We need to become a true opposition party."

But Smith has been known to find common ground with the opposing party, at least to blunt attacks. Congressman-elect Darren Soto, who also won his race in November for Florida's Ninth Congressional District, says in this last session he watched his friend collaborate with Republicans (who held the majority) to soften the blow of the "Pastor Protection Act," which legally protects churches from having to officiate same-sex marriages.

"He's fighting with everything he has to continue to make this state a more equal place to live," Soto says. "Sometimes it takes a fight to try to get something done, and sometimes it takes a compromise."

Anna Eskamani and her twin sister, Ida, met Smith while they were in the organization College Democrats at UCF. Anna, who currently serves as the spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, says Smith has always been an authentic person known for working through the night and into the early morning. He'll answer a text at 2 a.m. and has an ear for everybody, from constituents to incoming freshmen at UCF, she says.

"I've never seen a legislator with such a profound progressive agenda," she says. "After Trump's election, there's a lot of uncertainties and a lot to navigate. We can't just push back against legislation. We also have to ensure fellow Democrats who call themselves progressive are also held to that line. I feel confident knowing Carlos will be there to hold them accountable."

The true test of Smith's character came after the mass shooting on June 12 at the gay nightclub Pulse that claimed the lives of 49 people and injured more than 50 others. Like the rest of Central Florida, Smith was grieving the massacre, but he found power in his pain, Eskamani says.

National media outlets were slow to point out that most of the victims, aside from being part of the LGBTQ community, were also Latinos and lived in a unique intersection. Smith joined other local Latino leaders to give a voice to Spanish-speaking victims' families and help survivors of the massacre who had a difficult time navigating services catered to English-speaking people.

Rasha Mubarak, a local activist who works with the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says Smith was the first person to call her the day of the massacre to offer his support and solidarity. After it was revealed the gunman was Muslim, local Muslims feared they would be targeted.

"Carlos told me, 'Rasha, we're not going to let this divide us and we're going to send a message to the world,'" she says. "That night we stood together at the Dr. Phillips Center and read the names of the victims together. He's always demonstrated a commitment to combating any phobia, and we saw that put to the test in the wake of a mass shooting."

Ida Eskamani, who worked with Smith at Equality Florida, says Smith's election ensures the Latinx community has a seat at the table in Tallahassee for the first time.

"There's a key difference between visibility and representation," she says. "Carlos is working to lift up the voices of victims' families and survivors. With us being District 49 and there being 49 victims, there's a lot of symbolism that's powerful for him. It's something he keeps close to his heart."

After he was sworn in last week, Smith placed his rainbow ribbon pin next to the YES and NO buttons he will use to vote in this upcoming session. After everything that's happened, the small ribbon many people in Orlando took to wearing after the tragedy is a way to keep himself grounded and remember the 49.

He took some extra ribbons with him to pass out to Democratic and Republican legislators who aren't from Central Florida. In regards to Pulse, he wants to work on several pieces of gun reform legislation (such as expanding background checks for gun purchases and banning assault weapons in Florida), increase funding for mental health services, and make sure victims' families and survivors continue to have the resources they need.

"I thought I knew what priorities I would have as a legislator before June 12, but it changed everything in so many of our lives," he says. "This is a community that needs help to pick up the pieces. Wearing the ribbon keeps me focused on the values of life, love and equality for all."

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