Alex Lee’s win in Silicon Valley’s 25th Assembly District marks a couple of firsts.
Not only is he the first openly bisexual California legislator, but the 25-year-old progressive—who crushed GOP businessman Bob Brunton by a three-to-one margin—rode a wave of young voter turnout to become the Golden State’s first Gen Z legislator.
Researchers consider Generation Z—people born from the mid-1990s to around 2010—digital natives, a demographic that came of age in a time of political polarization, a precarious gig economy and, now with the pandemic, an uncertain future.
The state’s youngest lawmaker in more than eight decades, Lee—like many people his age—still lives with his mom in San Jose and, over the course of his campaign, worked for an app-based courier service just to scrape by.
Going into the primary against eight candidates with more age, experience and spending power made Lee the underdog. But despite being outspent 15-to-1 on a campaign that swore off corporate cash, Lee advanced to a runoff which, as the lone Democrat in a solidly blue district, he was destined to win.
Though a first-time candidate, Lee is no stranger to politics.
Upon graduating from UC Davis, where he served as student body president, he got a job in the Capitol office of state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga), who was 34 years old when elected in 2016. In the year to follow, Lee went on to work in the district office of Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), where he stayed until 2019 when he launched his own campaign to succeed Kansen Chu in AD 25.
“Four years ago, when Trump was winning the presidency, I was watching the returns as student body president,” Lee said. “I remember the morning after there being so much fear and anxiety among students and undocumented people, and feeling this sense of uncertainty. Today has its own level of uncertainty, but now at least I’m a small part of this political change that’s happening.”
Low, who became the nation’s first openly gay mayor in 2010 and the legislature’s youngest Asian-American in 2014, called Lee’s trajectory from aide to elected “awe-inspiring.” “Going from the legislative staff to now the member—seeing that has a personal meaning to me,” the 37-year-old AD 28 rep said. “That’s the path I took.”
Low said he’s thrilled to see Lee chart a course that’s made him a colleague.
“His candidacy goes to show that anyone can make the change that they want to see,” Low said, “and that you do not need to be a typical politician—an older, affluent male—to do it. ... The rainbow is that much brighter now.”
Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose)—another of Lee’s new colleagues in a neighboring district—said he’s eager to welcome another progressive to the Capitol, especially one who represents a younger generation among peers who are, on average, twice his age.
“He represents the experience of so many millions of Californians that isn’t currently reflected in Sacramento,” Kalra said. “I think that’s incredibly significant because it’s showing that we believe in our youth, that we believe in diversity.”
Though he might get mistaken for an intern once in a while or find people who underestimate him because of his youth, Lee’s age probably won’t be much of an issue, Kalra said. “My advice, especially for a progressive who’s values-based, is to not lose hope,” Kalra said. “Don’t get caught up the noise, which is the bureaucracy but also the bright lights, and keep up that energy so you don’t get stuck.”
That Lee emerged as frontrunner in the March primary, Kalra said, speaks to the time he invested meeting face-to-face with voters.
“You can’t replace that,” the AD 27 rep said,” not with all the money and all the mailers in the world. None of that compares to a candidate themselves being out there and engaging with people. That’s how I won my race, even with $6 million opposing me. I was on the ground, knocking on so many thousands of doors.”
Like Kalra, who’s a regular presence at marches and rallies, Lee has made a point of staying in the trenches. When protesters hit the streets in San Jose to protest police brutality, Lee marched with them and got arrested for violating the city’s curfew.
“I think that’s refreshing,” Kalra said of Lee’s activism. “I encourage him to continue to engage with the community where they are. When a community leader gets elected, they shouldn’t then close themselves off in an ivory tower.”
Lee said he has every intention of remaining accessible to constituents and looks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a model for not only her politics but for using social media as an open line of communication with regular people.
“That’s really important to me,” he said.
In another move that channels AOC and the progressive movement she represents, Lee said his first order of business as legislator will be to limit special-interest and corporate money in state elections. “I will introduce that bill on day one,” he pledged.
Prop. 22—the initiative Uber and Lyft bought for $200 million to avoid giving drivers employee benefits—underscores the dire need for that kind of reform, Lee noted.
“It shows us the dangers of corporate influence,” he said, “that companies can just buy their way out of following the law.”
Another pressing priority, as someone who’s been priced out of his own community, is tackling the affordability crisis by, among other things, pushing for public housing.
While Lee said he has yet to hammer out the details of his legislative agenda for the coming year, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed lawmaker-elect said he supports the Green New Deal, universal healthcare and tuition-free college.
Certainly the pandemic will inform much of his policy in the year ahead. “With Covid, there’s much more urgency when it comes to healthcare and making sure Californians don’t get saddled with debt,” Lee said. “We definitely have our work cut out for us.”