November 29, 2020
This election season was a year of firsts: the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush in 1993; the first mixed-race, Black, and Southeast Asian vice president; the first pandemic election; the first transgender state senator and first non-binary state representative. California’s newest state legislator, 25-year-old Alex Lee, is also a first in many ways: He’s the first openly bisexual state representative. He’s also likely the first legislator to have worked for an app-based food delivery service while running for office and the first one to have run his campaign while sleeping in his childhood home. “My election is a lot of historic firsts, and it’s a big responsibility,” Lee tells Mic.
Lee will represent California’s 25th Assembly District, which covers large swaths of Fremont and San Jose in the Bay Area. He graduated from the University of California at Davis in 2017, where he served as a student senator and as student body president — not a small task for a university with 30,000 undergraduate students. He’s of the generation whose young adulthood has been defined by not one, but two, economic recessions, and because of this, economic mobility is central to his platform.
He’s also part of the young bloc of progressives that has played a major role in ushering in a new wave of Democratic leaders, representatives that buck the rules of traditional establishment politics in favor of bold, radical, and imaginative policy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran for president in 2016 and 2020 on a democratic socialist platform, played a major role in activating Lee’s generation politically. The senator also endorsed Lee for his bid for office this year.
Lee was born and raised in the Bay Area, and actually lived in his childhood home with his mom, a nurse and frontline worker, while he ran for office. When he arrives to the California state capitol building for his swearing in on Dec. 7, he’ll be half the average age of his peers. California’s body of legislators is also disproportionately white, and Lee believes that his life experience as a bisexual Asian man will aid him in creating policies that address some of the challenges Californians like him face.
Though he’s young, Lee’s age makes him uniquely expert for the current moment: He’s old enough to know what the Bay Area looked like before the onset of the tech boom and the rise of Silicon Valley, yet young enough to directly feel its consequences. The gentrification of the Bay Area has spurred massive income inequality and a homelessness crisis more severe than the region has ever seen — and it’s a challenge that local lawmakers continue to struggle to respond to.
Housing affordability played a central role in Lee’s campaign and will guide his policy throughout his first two-year term as a member of the state assembly. “When it comes to housing, I am a big believer in the ‘three P’s’ framework, which is production of housing, preserving existing affordable housing, and protecting renters,” Lee tells Mic. He explains that his priorities will be centered around creating long-term housing for Bay Area residents in order to diminish the regional displacement that has come to characterize the past decade.
For Lee, housing affordability is not only an economic question, but also a moral one — a test of how we, as a society, address the needs of those with fewer economic advantages. “One huge piece of housing legislation that I really want to work on is reinvigorating public social housing in California,” Lee says. According to the California Budget Center, “[In] every region of California, from the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and South Coast to the lower-cost Central Valley and Far North, at least a third of households spent more than 30% of their incomes toward housing in 2017.” Non-white households and renters are also paying more than their white peers; nearly two-thirds of “cost-burdened” Californians, referring to those who spend at least 30% of their income on housing, are people of color.
“We can’t let corporations continue to funnel money into our elections as they do.”
The housing data bears out another truth Lee spoke about while running for office, which he intends to champion in Sacramento: racial justice and equity. Issues of housing affordability and housing location are deeply intertwined with the quality of one’s schools, the likelihood that one will attend and graduate from college, and predictive of possible police interactions.
Yet social and economic inequity are rooted in an inequity of representation; after all, policy tends to reflect people with institutional power. That power paves the way for political access, which Lee says is corrupting our democracy. That’s why Lee plans to introduce a piece of legislation on his first day in office that aims to combat inequity at its core. “On Dec. 7, we’ll be introducing a bill to prohibit corporate contributions to all candidates in the state,” Lee tells Mic. That includes everyone from your local city council member to those serving in the state legislature, like Lee, to the governor. “It’s important because we do not want the real or perceived influence of corporate money buying votes,” Lee says.
Under his proposed legislation, each of those officials cannot accept donations from “Lyft, Uber, Tesla — any company you can name,” he says, listing out a few of the biggest companies that have remade California’s economy in recent years. These corporations are also the ones responsible for killing Prop 22, a ballot measure Californians considered this year that would have classified contract workers as employees. The measure didn’t pass, due in large part to what onlookers like Lee say was a massive campaign to confuse the voters about what exactly the proposal would do. In defeating Prop 22, the corporations successfully rebuked the legislature’s 2019 effort to bolster worker’s rights.
Lee tells Mic that the tech companies effectively bought their own law enabling them to continue “propping up their business model of worker exploitation.” Under the state’s current social, economic, and political systems, “the rich get richer, the corporations get richer, while the poor get poorer,” he says, “and that is endemic of the vast inequalities that are engrained within our legal system [and] within our society. We can’t let corporations continue to funnel money into our elections as they do.”
Unlike most other politicians, Lee has actually worked in the gig economy. During the campaign, he drove for a food delivery app, and he tells Mic that the grueling work would often not even result minimum wage hourly pay. But it’s flexible work — and in a pandemic where the government has only doled out one $1,200 check any work is needed. That means that many people find themselves driving for app-based companies after they’ve already clocked out of a full time job, just like Lee did.
“It is grueling work where you’re scraping pennies together out of the bottom of a barrel,” he says. “It’s such a tough road to go and that’s why there’s such a huge turnover, and that’s why Prop 22 is so detrimental.”
For all of his progressive idealism, Lee hails from San Jose, a city in the Bay Area that isn’t quite as left of center as he is. For example, Sam Liccardo, the Democratic mayor of San Jose, isn’t in favor of defunding the police, a call that arose out of this summer’s racial justice uprisings. “We need to reinvest the money — that we waste, frankly — on police departments toward the communities,” Lee tells Mic. Though other elected officials throughout the state may disagree, that hasn’t scared Lee away from pursuing his values. “I really have no problems with the phrase ‘defund the police,'” Lee says. “And if it makes people uncomfortable, then people should be analyzing why that may be the case.”
Politics, in large part, is about the slow churn of policy change and about painstakingly finding compromises with those ideologically different from you. But many young people feel they can’t really afford to wait for the process to play out — take the climate crisis as one example — which might be why more of them are running for office. After all, Lee is working for “real dramatic change, not incremental change,” he says — and that might be just what his generation needs.