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Maxwell Frost, first Generation-Z Congressman, gets his bearings on Capitol Hill

Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, a 25-year-old Afro-Cuban progressive activist from Orlando, Florida, is about to be the youngest member of Congress.

Representative-elect Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) jogs to the front of the room to participate in the office lottery for new members at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 2, 2022. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)
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Maxwell Frost, first Generation-Z Congressman, gets his bearings on Capitol Hill
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Written by Stephanie Lai

He is a fan of early-2000s rock, which was popular when he was in kindergarten. He is still working to get his undergraduate degree. And he is couch surfing to save money as he starts his new job, which is representing Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives.

Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, a 25-year-old Afro-Cuban progressive activist from Orlando, Florida, is about to be the youngest member of Congress. He has swapped the megaphone he once used to lead protests for a seat in one of the nation’s most powerful institutions, where he will be the first member of Generation Z to serve.

In a body where the average age was more than twice his (58.4 years old in the most recent Congress), Frost is starting with a keen sense of mission.

“I think we all have this call to action, and you feel like you have to do something,” he said on a recent Wednesday, as he made his way to a hotel room to freshen up before getting his official headshot taken.

The something that motivated Frost, he said, was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, when he was in high school, which killed 26 people, most of them young children, and gave rise to a grim and nearly omnipresent ritual of active shooter drills for primary and secondary school students across the country.

Representative-elect Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) visits potential offices at the Capitol in Washington after the lottery for new members on Dec. 2, 2022. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Frost, who is of Lebanese, Puerto Rican and Haitian descent and was adopted at birth in 1997, grew up in Orlando with a mother who was a Cuban refugee and schoolteacher and a father who was a Kansas-born musician.

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At an early age, he came to love music and the arts, eventually hosting a music festival with a friend. But he found another passion in political activism, volunteering in 2012 with President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and then in 2016 with presidential campaigns for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After enrolling at Valencia College in Orlando in 2015, he took a break in 2019 to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, and later became a national organiser for the youth-led advocacy group March for Our Lives, which focuses on enacting stricter gun control measures. He drove for Uber to make ends meet.

In January 2021, a political operative approached urging him to seek public office, but Frost said what ultimately persuaded him to do so was connecting with his biological mother several months later.

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Representative-elect Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) looks at a potential office at the Capitol in Washington after the lottery for new members on Dec. 2, 2022.  (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

During the conversation, Frost learned that his biological mother, who had seven other children and gave birth to him at the most vulnerable point in her life, had given him up because she did not have the resources to care for him.

“Just hearing about the hardships she went through as a woman of colour really solidified my beliefs,” Frost said. “I hung up the phone and said, ‘I’m running for Congress.’ ”

He declared his candidacy two months later. Frost said he was moved to run “for people like my biological mother, for my family and for my district,” and wanted to be in a position “to fight to ensure that the condition doesn’t exist for anybody.”

Frost’s win in the midterm elections was a bright spot for Democrats, who lost ground in Florida and narrowly lost their majority in the House. He adds to a diverse field of newly elected representatives from underrepresented communities.

Representative-elect Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) looks at a potential apartment on Dec. 2, 2022. He plans to couch surf during his first few weeks in Washington. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Not everyone has been dazzled by Frost’s youthful enthusiasm. His Republican challenger, Calvin Wimbish, suggested that he was unfit to serve in Congress.

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“What has he been able to do?” Wimbish asked in an interview with Spectrum News. “Has he managed people, resources, has he had time? Has he had the exposure to learning from others?”

Frost is taking over the distinction of youngest member of Congress from Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who was elected in 2020 at the age of 25. But the Florida Democrat is not the youngest member of Congress in history. That record, which is unlikely ever to be broken, belongs to William C C Claiborne, who may have been 22 when he was elected to the House in 1797. (There is some dispute over his age but no question that he was younger than 25.)

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While the Constitution mandates that House members be at least 25 years old, the House chose to seat Claiborne anyway.

With his youth come some unique challenges for Frost. He is spending his first few weeks in Washington crashing with friends as he searches for an affordable place to live, as he will not be paid for a few weeks, until the new Congress convenes Jan. 3.

When the moment is right, he said he would rent a studio apartment within walking or electric scooter distance of the Capitol.

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But his age has also given him a leg up in some areas. During the digital training portion of new member orientation over the past two weeks, he managed to set up his personal technology in half the time of his older colleagues.

He surprised his fellow members-elect last week as he captured moments throughout the day with 0.5 selfies, a new fad among the Gen Z set that entails taking iPhone photos using the back camera. And he’s had the privilege of being “slimed” by Nickelodeon and getting a shoutout from English pop band The 1975 while at one of the band’s concerts.

On Capitol Hill, he has sometimes felt like a kid trying to get to know a new school. He got lost in the Capitol Visitor Center — as the soundtrack of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” blared in his headphones — and had the dizzying experience of meeting new and current members during informational sessions throughout the Capitol complex.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., whom he will succeed, has offered him mentorship and described him in an interview as “beyond his years.”

“He takes the job seriously, but I don’t think he takes himself too seriously,” Demings said. “If he can keep that kind of spirit, even on the rough days and nights here, he’ll be OK.”

Her main piece of advice for the youngster: Talk to different people and look across the aisle for unlikely allies.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who visited Frost before the primary election to help his campaign, said he would fit right in in Congress.

“You know, for someone who is 25, he’s kind of an old soul,” Pocan said, adding that he had been struck by Frost’s “thoughtfulness of how he looked at issues and his progressive values.”

Sanders was among the first to reach out to congratulate him after the election was called, Frost said, recounting how he knew his former boss was calling when the Vermont area code popped up on his phone.

“He has the potential to be a great leader, speaking to the young people in this country,” Sanders said of Frost in an interview.

For now, Frost is focused on some immediate tasks. He has about a year left of his undergraduate education at Valencia College, and he said he intends to resume his coursework at some point.

Over the next two years, Frost aims to lean into his love for grassroots organising by building a strong local presence with an accessible district office. At the Capitol, he said his goal was to make incremental steps toward addressing Democratic priorities such as improving health care, enacting gun control measures and building community violence intervention programs.

In the next few weeks, he will hire a staff, move into his new corner office in the Longworth Building across from the Capitol and learn how to balance his administrative budget and manage his time as a representative.

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“Let’s start where we can,” he said, “and not lose sight of our values.”

First published on: 07-12-2022 at 12:22 IST
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