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The evolution of Anna Paulina Luna, Republican candidate for Congress

Much about Luna is new, including her last name and her residence in St. Petersburg. It coincides with her decision to challenge Rep. Charlie Crist.

In one of her commercials, congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna walks along a tarmac, looking straight into the camera.

“Unlike the crooks in Congress," she says, "I’m not going to lie to your face and tell you what you want to hear.”

The straight talk is Luna’s campaign style, in person and on social media. She pokes at liberals on Twitter, elevating conservative causes and championing President Donald Trump to more than 200,000 followers. Her outsider status, with no family or career connections to Washington, propelled her through a competitive primary election to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Charlie Crist in Florida’s 13th Congressional District.

The campaign draws heavily on her Hispanic heritage, Southern California roots, an impoverished and unstable childhood, and her service in the U.S. Air Force. But much about Luna, 31, is new, including her last name and her residence in St. Petersburg.

Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna laughs as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November.
Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna laughs as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The journey from Anna Paulina Mayerhofer to Anna Paulina Luna, from “avid supporter" of President Barack Obama to swimsuit model to conservative firebrand, has been rapid. The evolution coincides with her decision to challenge Crist in the district that covers southern Pinellas County.

In a 2017 interview with Canadian lifestyle and culture magazine Skyn, Luna — who at the time went by her married name, Gamberzky — described her biggest revelation in appearing before the camera:

“I’m able to take on different personalities depending on what image I am going for. I think getting into character of what you are selling is super important.”

Related: Anna Paulina Luna wins 13th Congressional District Republican primary

• • •

Luna was born Anna Paulina Mayerhofer in 1989 in Santa Ana, Calif. Her mother is of Mexican descent while her father is Mexican and German.

Luna’s parents never married. She remembers being a kid and getting jail calls from her father. She once said she found a meth bag when she was 10.

Her mother, who raised her on government assistance and had been in a series of bad relationships, took her north to Los Angeles. Luna attended six high schools before earning her diploma and recalled being pulled out of one by her mother after a gang shooting left one of her classmates dead.

“You want to talk about a case for school choice,” Luna said, “you’re looking at it.”

Her upbringing is one of the ways Luna differentiates herself from Crist, who grew up on Snell Isle in a nuclear family, graduated from St. Petersburg High School and whose physician father groomed him for leadership. Luna regularly reminds voters that nobody in her family had political aspirations for her.

Instead, at 19, she enlisted in the Air Force and has made her service central to her campaign.

Luna’s mailers include photographs of her in tailored fatigues, draped in an assault rifle, holding a pistol, posing with a dog. They were taken during a photoshoot for Ballistic — “The Premier Firearms and Survival Magazine” — which featured Luna on the cover of its February/March issue.

Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna, right, speaks with supporters Randall Smith, second from right, of St. Petersburg, and Elaine Fowler, 72, left, of Largo as Luna mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November.
Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna, right, speaks with supporters Randall Smith, second from right, of St. Petersburg, and Elaine Fowler, 72, left, of Largo as Luna mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

She spent her entire service working as an airfield manager, first in Missouri and then in Florida. She earned an Air Force Achievement Medal and was granted an honorable discharge in 2014 — early, she said, so that she could pursue her degree. She graduated from the University of West Florida with a bachelor of science in biology.

Luna planned to pursue medicine after graduating but instead enlisted in the Oregon Air National Guard in Portland, where her husband, an Air Force combat controller, was stationed.

They sold their Portland-area home in October 2019, after her husband was relocated to MacDill Air Force Base. The couple bought a home in St. Petersburg in July.

Luna modeled as a side gig during her service and then later to help pay for school. She had to get the military’s permission before she could appear in a swimsuit Maxim in 2014, where she was a “Hometown Hottie” representing Fort Walton Beach.

She also was featured on si.com as a “Lovely Lady of the Day” and was once a model for Liberty Belles, a website that highlights women posing in camouflage bikinis with guns. The website’s mission is to “fight back against the tyranny of trannys," using an offensive term for transgender people, and “decimate the progressive cucks looking to change these United States into another failed socialist state.” It removed her images after she announced her candidacy.

Luna told Ballistic that she favors George Washington among Founding Fathers and food with wheat — specifically pizza and fettuccine alfredo — despite a gluten sensitivity. She sees herself in Game of Thrones' Jon Snow and loves Baby Yoda from Disney’s The Mandalorian.

“I don’t care if you’re liberal, if you’re conservative, you love Baby Yoda,” she said.

• • •

In a blog post she wrote that has since been removed from her personal website, Luna called herself “a two time very avid supporter of Obama in my early years and considered myself a Democrat.”

She never voted for him and wasn’t a registered Democrat, she said, but nevertheless thought the president was “cool” for talking the way she talked.

Related: Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna threatens to sue Twitter over blue check mark

“I mean, I maybe felt like there was some connection there,” she said in a recent interview.

She once said her conservatism grew after her landlord broke into her apartment in the middle of the night when she was stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

“He was not breaking into my house at 4 o’clock in the morning to ask me how I was doing,” Luna said in a video posted to her YouTube channel.

Related: Republican Anna Paulina Luna has a history of clashing with Twitter

After the incident, Luna took up self-defense courses, began carrying a gun and became a gun rights advocate.

“Although no one had ever really sat me down and explained the difference between a Democrat and Republican, my values more so aligned with that of the Republican Party,” she said she realized.

Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna listens as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November.
Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna listens as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. Luna has secured the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in November. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Later, Luna said she began doing research into human trafficking. She was moved by the story of Karla Jacinto, a survivor turned activist. And she learned about Tim Ballard, a former special agent with the Department of Homeland Security who founded Operation Underground Railroad, an organization that specializes in “extraction operations and in anti-child trafficking efforts to bring an end to child slavery,” according to its website.

Operation Underground is often promoted by followers of QAnon — a baseless conspiracy that asserts that certain celebrities, politicians and other public figures are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles, and that Trump was put in place to stop them. The conspiracy theory’s supporters have used the child trafficking cause to recruit more followers and to stage local rallies.

Luna said she “doesn’t necessarily know what QAnon is.”

“I’m not into conspiracy theories.”

Related: https://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2020/09/08/how-qanon-is-seeping-into-florida-during-the-2020-presidential-campaign/

Luna began speaking out about human trafficking and other topics on social media to “really shed light on things that I felt were kind of lacking in normal conversation.” It caught the attention of Charlie Kirk, a young acolyte of Trump’s and founder of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, who brought her on in 2018 as the organization’s national Hispanic engagement director.

She served in that role for under a year, making national news Thanksgiving morning 2018 when during a Fox News appearance, she compared Hillary Clinton to herpes. She was removed from the segment and the host apologized. Luna told the Tampa Bay Times she didn’t know she was live on air and called it a mistake.

Related: Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna hosted panel at We Build The Wall event

She works now with conservative nonprofit media company Prager University, which the Southern Poverty Law Center called “an indispensable propaganda device for the right.”

Luna’s top campaign issue is improving services for veterans, a position informed by a wound her husband sustained in Afghanistan. He was shot in the thigh, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs classified him as 0 percent disabled. It reminded her of Vietnam War veterans struggling with claims of Agent Orange exposure.

“I don’t think that there’s enough legislators that have gone through the process and understand really where we need to make adjustments to ensure that the VA should be a well-oiled machine,” she said.

Kirk endorsed her in February, declaring Luna “a true fighter for our country! We need more like her!”

Luna also has support from U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress. After trailing in the polls ahead of the August primary, Luna won the five-way race thanks in part to Gaetz, who stumped for her in Largo, and Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted in her favor.

The president tweeted his endorsement the night she captured the nomination.

• • •

Luna pronounces her first name “Ah-na.”

Reached by phone, Luna’s mother, who preferred not to be identified by name, called her daughter “Ann-a," but said relatives pronounced it differently. In a recent interview, Luna said she answers to both.

She didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. Going back generations in her mother’s family, children were taught English only, to shield them from pervasive racism.

Despite her Hispanic roots, Luna identified herself as “White, not of Hispanic Origin” when she registered to vote in Okaloosa County in 2015, records show.

“When I was in college, I also checked the Hispanic box, I also checked Native American, I also checked white,” Luna said. “I’ve had my DNA done, and I think that these questions are kind of insulting, honestly.”

Luna said she decided in 2018 to run for Congress. At the time, she still went by Gamberzky and the couple owned a home in Washington state.

The name “Luna,” a family name on her mother’s side, first appeared months later, in March 2019. She filed a petition in Clark County district court in Washington requesting the name change.

“I would like to represent my Hispanic heritage and have the same last name as my mother,” she wrote in the petition. Luna’s mother, whose last name is not Luna, said she asked her daughter to adopt the family name.

A judge granted the change a month later. She was 29.

Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna listens as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater.
Congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna listens as she mingles with supporters during an event Oct. 1 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Luna said the timing of her name change was partially driven by her desire to protect her husband’s privacy, pointing out that she didn’t use his last name when she was a political commentator for Turning Point.

Fifteen days later, a note was published on Luna’s Facebook page, featuring a logo with red and blue lettering in all capital letters across the top: “Anna Paulina Luna for Congress.”

In May 2019, Luna said, she moved to the Tampa Bay area. She filed paperwork to run for Congress in Florida’s 13th District on Sept. 4. Six days later, she became a Pinellas County voter, registering as Hispanic.

Presented with the timeline, Luna said her embrace of her Hispanic identity doesn’t align with her political aspirations.

“If you look at my family, you can see that there’s a lot of diversity there, but I’m just not seeing that that diversity is being respected,” she said.

• • •

When her photographs appeared in Skyn, Luna had just graduated from college. A career in medicine was still on the table, political aspirations a ways off.

In the magazine, she offered advice to aspiring models:

“Always remember that the image you portray is the image you are going to essentially sell,” she said. “It is your ‘brand.’”

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