The first-term Republican U.S. representative got into a high-profile feud with The Washington Post over a recent profile.
U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna is known locally for her confrontational, unabashed approach to politics. While seeking the GOP nomination to Congress last year, she campaigned with firebrand U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. She once compared Hillary Clinton to herpes. (She later said that was a mistake.) She filed a federal elections complaint against Twitter in 2020 for refusing to verify her account.
Now the nation is taking notice of the 33-year-old Republican lawmaker from Pinellas County. This month, more people have searched her name on Google than ever before, according to the search engine’s tracking data.
Interest in Luna has grown since she won the U.S. House seat once held by Charlie Crist. Luna joined more than a dozen conservative colleagues in a rebellion against Kevin McCarthy before he was elected House speaker. They forced a historic 15 votes on who would lead the Republican-controlled chamber. Earlier this month, Luna was mentioned in news reports as one of several lawmakers seen wearing a pin in the shape of what appeared to be an AR-15 rifle on the House floor. (Luna is an avid supporter of gun rights.)
But what catapulted Luna to national prominence was the Feb. 10 publication of a Washington Post profile. It questioned whether Luna had exaggerated parts of her biography and cultural background as she entered the political world.
Luna has blasted the Post in dozens of tweets, calling the story “BS.” Her office has raised numerous issues with the story, which has been amended twice since its publication. (The Post erroneously wrote that Luna had been a registered Democrat in Washington state, and clarified that Luna was mentioned but not interviewed in a police report about a break-in at an apartment where she once lived.)
“This is kind of the M.O. of the leftist media,” Luna said in a recent video posted to Twitter. “They try to print lies, hoping that you can’t debunk them.”
Luna took her feud with the Post to other outlets. Fox News dedicated an on-air segment and an online article to the Post story in an effort to debunk it. People Magazine followed up with its own story.
On the campaign trail, Luna often drew on her Hispanic heritage, her U.S. Air Force service and her humble beginnings in Southern California as the daughter of a man struggling with addiction and a woman navigating single motherhood. She and her mother moved around a lot — Luna often notes she attended six high schools. She said her father was in and out of jail and her mother at times relied on government programs to care for her.
Luna enlisted at 19 in the military and served at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri as an airfield manager. While in the service, she met her husband. She was discharged to pursue a biology degree from the University of West Florida. She did some modeling, then became active in conservative politics.
The Post story questioned important parts of Luna’s narrative. For example, reporters quoted members of Luna’s extended family who rebutted her claim that she had limited family support. They said Luna was often invited to family gatherings, and at times cared for by relatives who lived nearby.
But Luna’s office said the family members with whom the Post spoke are not to be trusted. The two quoted are Luna’s cousin and that cousin’s mother — the daughter and partner of Edward Mayerhofer, an uncle against whom Luna requested a stalking injunction in 2020.
“These people are not reputable sources, and the claims that they’re making are fundamentally untrue,” Luna spokesperson Edie Heipel said.
The Post story tried to verify Luna’s claim that her father, George Mayerhofer, spent time in and out of jail when Luna was younger. Post reporters wrote that they could not find records of Mayerhofer’s incarceration.
Online court records show that Mayerhofer had an extensive rap sheet. He was the defendant in eight misdemeanor cases in Orange County between 1997 and 2004 — the first when Luna was 8 years old and the last when she was 15. In at least one case, online records show he was taken into custody for court hearings.
Luna’s office let a Times reporter review, but not copy, a document that the office said was produced by the California Department of Justice. It listed Mayerhofer’s criminal charges and sentences through the years. The document showed he did several stints in local jails starting in 1990, when Luna was an infant.
The Times was not able to independently obtain this document because California law limits access to criminal history records compiled by the state. To review such records, they must be requested by the person whose criminal history it is, or certain officials: law enforcement or attorneys, for example. Luna’s office said Luna got access to the document after it was obtained by her father.
George Mayerhofer passed away last year.
When contacted by the Times on Friday, an official with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the agency had no incarceration records for a “George Mayerhofer” but added that its records don’t include those from county jails.
A spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department would not disclose Mayerhofer’s local criminal history. A person’s detailed local criminal history is not a public record in California.
The Post reported that a spokesperson for the “Orange County Corrections Department and the Santa Ana jail” said they had no record of incarceration for Mayerhofer.
The Post did not respond to requests for clarification about whom exactly they spoke to in Orange County.
“This was a deeply reported story about Rep. Luna’s biography and included ample perspectives from people who have known her throughout her life,” a Post spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement Monday.
A 2020 Tampa Bay Times profile of Luna described how she changed her last name from Mayerhofer to Luna the same year she first filed to run for Congress. It reported how Luna claimed that she was “White, not of Hispanic Origin” when she registered to vote in Okaloosa County in 2015 — then “Hispanic” when she registered in Pinellas in 2019. Her mother pronounces her first name “Ann-a,” the Times wrote then. Luna pronounces it “Ah-na,” — and said she answers to both.
Luna has denied playing up her Hispanic heritage to gain votes.
“I think that these questions are kind of insulting, honestly,” Luna told the Times in 2020.
The Post story mentioned that some who served with Luna at Whiteman Air Force Base do not recall her referring to herself as Hispanic. (Some said they do remember her saying she supported then-President Barack Obama. Luna says that was before she took a special interest in politics.)
Lamar Carson, a friend of Luna’s with whom Luna served at Whiteman, told the Times this week that Luna has been consistent in the way she’s presented herself.
“She’s always been the same person I’ve known since 2009,″ Carson said.
Since entering the political world, Luna has earned a reputation as a brash, outspoken personality. She joined Turning Point USA, an advocacy group for young conservatives, as its director for Hispanic engagement. She gained a steady following online, posting her take on the political controversy of the day. Then, in 2019, she filed to run for Congress.
She won the Republican nomination, but lost to Crist in the general election by 6 points.
When Crist vacated his seat to run for governor in 2022, Luna took another run at Congress in a district redrawn by the Legislature to favor Republicans.
Her second campaign got off to a bizarre start. Luna obtained a temporary stalking injunction against one of her opponents, whom she accused of plotting to kill her.
In court, a conservative activist cited a recording of a phone call in which the rival, William Braddock, called Luna vulgar names and talked about having access to a “hit squad.” A judge dismissed Luna’s stalking injunction, but warned Braddock that his behavior could be used to justify future injunctions.
Luna again won the Republican primary, then beat Democrat Eric Lynn in the general election by 8 points.
As Congress reckons with its new Republican majority in the House, Luna will have more power than usual for a first-term U.S. representative. Because of concessions negotiated by Luna’s conservative colleagues, any member can call for a vote to remove McCarthy at any time. With a fragile 222-212 majority in the House, Republicans cannot withstand more than a handful of defections if they want to pass legislation without the help of Democrats.
Luna sits on the Committee on Oversight and Accountability and the Committee on Natural Resources. So far, she’s co-sponsored a bill to allow a wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border, and one reinstating anyone discharged from the military for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Luna’s office said she is focused on legislating. The disagreement with The Washington Post didn’t distract Luna’s operation, her spokesperson said.
“Not at all,” Heipel said. “We are just putting out the facts.”
Published to Tampa Bay Times