‘I’ve been Maced, I’ve been to jail …’ Can 25-year-old Maxwell Frost now be the first Gen Z member of Congress?
The gun-control activist has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and won a Democratic primary in Florida – but he still drives an Uber to make ends meet. Can he now make history?
It’s been a decade since Maxwell Alejandro Frost launched his first big campaign. He was 15 years old, coming off a stint volunteering on Barack Obama’s reelection bid and desperate to attend the president’s second inauguration. In an online search for tickets, Frost stumbled across a page soliciting applications to perform in the inaugural parade. So he submitted what he thought was the perfect act to represent central Florida, the region he calls home: his nine-piece high-school salsa band, Seguro Que Sí (translation: “of course”). “I got some videos together, wrote about our band and how we would love to represent Florida and specifically the growing Latino population,” says Frost.
Weeks later, he received a call while in class from the inaugural committee inviting his band to play if they could get a US senator to vouch for them and fund the trip to Washington DC themselves. When Frost totted up the costs of transport, lodging, food and the band’s float, he arrived at a figure of $13,000. His headteacher told him the school did not have the funds or the pull to make the trip happen and suggested backing out. But Frost was undaunted.
He spent his Thanksgiving break doorstepping local businesses for donations and raised $5,000. He blitzed the office of Bill Nelson, Florida’s ranking US senator, with beseeching phone calls and, after two weeks, had his recommendation letter. Eventually, Frost’s school had a change of heart and added a matching pledge. Impressed, the inaugural committee picked up the cost of the float.
On inauguration day, there was no missing Seguro Que Sí as they glided down Pennsylvania Avenue in matching black overcoats and red scarves, with Frost leading on the timbales. No sooner had the president and first lady heard them than they shot up from their seats to sway along. For Frost, the moment is a testament to the power of community organising. “Me and a bunch of teenagers got our band to DC, and we made the president dance,” Frost says. “I’ve always had these crazy ideas. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t.”
Frost’s latest folly, running for a seat in the House of Representatives, seems to be working out so far, too. Last month he emerged from a field of 10 Democrats to comfortably win the primary for Florida’s 10th congressional district, which comprises a sizeable chunk of Orlando. This is after Val Demings, the thrice-elected Democratic incumbent, stepped down to challenge Marco Rubio’s US Senate seat.
In a state where politics are increasingly defined by Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other old, conservative white men, Frost cuts against the grain. An Afro-Cuban progressive who is barely old enough to legally hire a car, Frost fights for universal healthcare and against gun violence. (Which is to say: he’d fit right in with The Squad.) He wasn’t born into a political dynasty or educated at an Ivy League university. He was adopted at birth and went to college online – “before it was cool,” jokes the political science major, who is still a few credits short of finishing his degree. And despite raising more than $1.5m for the campaign, more than any candidate in the race by a wide margin, Frost doesn’t come from means. To make ends meet, he drives for Uber. In between, he keeps fuelled with a steady diet of egg, cheese and avocado sandwiches. (“I love breakfast sandwiches,” he gushes.) He hopes his campaign motivates more regular people to run for office.
If Frost wins his seat in the midterm elections in November, it won’t just be a victory for the working class. It will also mark the first time a member of generation Z is voted to Congress. (Aged 25, he’s just old enough to legally run.) Ask Frost why he is chasing history instead of making TikToks, swiping right and otherwise whiling away his youth, and he will cite the inspiration he took from Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton aide and founder of Run For Something, an organisation that encourages young progressives to enter politics. “She said: ‘You don’t run for office at 25 years old because it’s the next step in your career, or the thing you’ve been planning since you were in kindergarten or college. You run because there was a problem so piercing driving you, and you can’t imagine doing anything else with your time,’” he says. “For me, that encapsulates it. There’s so much work that needs to happen.”
Frost has been at it for a while. After the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, he started an organisation to end gun violence – a scourge that has become such a constant during his life that he refers to generation Z by a different name: “the mass shooting generation.” Even his post-primary mini-break to Charleston, South Carolina, was rocked by a pair of Labor Day weekend shootings – one downtown that left five people injured, and another that sent a 13-year-old to hospital.
In recent years in Florida alone, there has been the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, (where 14 students and three staff members were killed), and the 2016 shooting at the gay Orlando nightclub, Pulse (which killed 49 people). Besides Obama’s reelection, Frost has volunteered on the political campaigns of Clinton and Bernie Sanders and worked for the ACLU. In 2018, he helped to pass Florida amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.5 million Floridians with felony convictions.
Frost’s political endorsements run the gamut from Sanders to Parkland survivor David Hogg to the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, which fights for gun reform and abortion rights. But it was while he was national organising director of March for Our Lives – the group formed by Parkland student survivors – that Frost announced himself as a political star who would not be intimidated by gun-rights champions.
He recounts how, while on a barnstorming awareness tour called Road to Change, he and his fellow activists were tailed by a group called the Utah Gun Exchange in an armoured car. It was scary, he says: “Like, wow, I’m travelling with a bunch of school shooting survivors, and these people are brandishing weapons. One day we were just like: ‘Screw it.’ We parked the bus, walked back there and started talking to them.” That led to long conversations and even agreements on some things, such as background checks. It is moments like these that give Frost the confidence that he can reach across the aisle and forge bonds that yield meaningful legislation. But when those respectful conversations can’t happen, Frost won’t hesitate to force the issue. If elected, he says he will push for a ban on assault weapons, dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun lobbies, and create a national gun-violence taskforce made up of young, Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) representatives.
Three months ago, Frost created a national stir when he confronted Florida governor DeSantis at an Orlando event after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed. In a widely circulated video posted on his Twitter page, Frost can be seen haranguing DeSantis to do something about gun violence. “Nobody wants to hear from you,” DeSantis sniffs, as Frost is escorted away. “I’m not afraid to pull up,” Frost says. “I have been Maced. I’ve been to jail for talking about what I believe in. So the threshold for un-comfortability is higher than the average person’s.”
Despite his obvious maturity, Frost is prepared to follow in the august tradition of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin and other young politicians who have been pilloried for acting their age. His youth is an obvious line of attack for his Republican opponent, Calvin Wimbish, a 72-year-old former Green Beret, who was carrying out intelligence operations in Iraq while Frost was still wearing GapKids clothes. But Frost isn’t about to straighten up for any opponent; if they go low, he’ll limbo lower. “You’re gonna see me at concerts,” he says. “You’re gonna see me drumming. You’re gonna see me dancing. I was just at a library, and somebody came up to me and said: ‘I saw you dancing on stage on election day and it made me really happy to see a politician dancing.’
“We’ve been conditioned to think politicians should behave a certain way. That’s why I danced on that stage after my speech. I want to give people a little taste of me and demystify the whole thing for them. I am you, you are me; I’m a small piece of a bigger puzzle.”
As an Afro-Cuban on the campaign trail, Frost runs the risk of being othered by potential voters in either group. But beneath his mixed heritage and adoption story is a lot of common ground. His adoptive mother came to the US as a child in the 1960s, via a Freedom Flight from Cuba, with his grandmother and aunt; between them, they had one suitcase and no money. His childhood is full of fond memories of sumptuous food and weekend trips to south Florida. Frost’s adoptive father, a white Kansan, was a full-time steel pan player who introduced him to John Coltrane and Earth, Wind & Fire, and gifted him a drum kit in the second grade. “Not to get too deep, but when he showed me the wonder of culture, art and music, it changed my life,” Frost says. “It opened me up to what it means to be vulnerable and what it means to allow art to make you vulnerable.”
Frost did not anticipate his rising political profile would result in him running for office this soon. Even as Democratic operatives recruited Frost after Demings announced her intention to unseat Rubio, Frost was content working in the grassroots. But then last July, Frost reconnected with his biological mother. Among other things, she disclosed that she had been battling with drugs, crime and poverty when Frost was born. “What made the conversation even more powerful was that I never meant to have it,” he says. “Not because I hated her, but because I was living my life.” She explained that she had given up Frost for adoption not to give him a chance for a better life, but to spare him for something even greater. After their chat Frost was convinced: he was running for Congress.
So far, the Frost campaign’s biggest gains have come the old-fashioned way, through a disciplined and methodical ground game. He has been especially deliberate about canvassing the University of Central Florida and its 70,000 students, many of them in-state local people. “We had Nights for Frost, with a group of young people knocking on doors,” he says. “We did ‘dorm storms’ multiple times. All too often people write off the youth vote because it hasn’t performed as much as other [groups]. But we also have to recognise that there are so many structural barriers that impact young people going to vote. We have a lot of work to do that spans beyond registering voters. It’s not just talking to people when they’re 18, but talking to people when they’re 16, 14 – creating lifelong advocates, not just waiting until they’re 18.”
Frost doesn’t just understand where young people are coming from; he’s in the same boat. He lives with his girlfriend and his sister. When they were priced out of their apartment last October, he couch-surfed and slept in his car for a month before he found a new place. “I couldn’t go back home because my 97-year-old grandmother lives there, and this was in the middle of the Delta variant,” he says.
Now in a new apartment, he is splitting $2,100 a month rent, which is still too high, he says. He has made up his mind to move out when the lease expires in November, potentially leaving him unhoused on election day. If he wins, he says he wouldn’t get paid until February at the earliest. Technically, he could take a stipend from his campaign fund now, but he would rather not give the Wimbish campaign or its allies any ammunition. To soften the potential blow to come, he hit the Uber trail hard and completed 60 rides one weekend. This is in between pulling 70-hour weeks on the campaign. So when he talks with urgency about the affordable housing crisis, it’s real. “There’s still a lot of barriers for working-class people to run for office,” he says. “I want to be the voice who shows how messed up it is and help demystify the process.”
When it comes to considering his potential political legacy, though, to hear Frost tell it, if he does his job right, he won’t be in it for long. “I want to live in a world where you don’t have to care about politics,” he says, “where these political clubs just don’t exist. March for Our Lives doesn’t exist. MSNBC is irrelevant. TV is all about entertainment because the government is working for you. Yeah, that’s utopian, but it’s what we need to work toward.”