The California legislature’s youngest member says the ruling party should be accomplishing more.
“We have Democratic ultra-majorities, and yet we don’t accomplish a lot of the things we aspire to do,” said state Assembly member Alex Lee ’17.
Lee was 25 years old in 2020 when he was elected to represent a district encompassing Milpitas, Santa Clara, Newark and parts of Fremont and San Jose. He’s California’s youngest-ever Asian American state legislator, the first from Gen Z, and the first openly bisexual state legislator.
“The firsts to me are pretty cool, but it’s also a big responsibility,” he said. “My goal in the next 10-ish years in office is holding the door wide open for even more impressive people.”
He’s open about his plans to seek the full 12 years in the state Legislature allowed by law, saying he hopes a larger group of young, diverse legislators would further his goals of moving the state’s Democratic party from a culture of incremental change to one that dismantles the status quo.
Lee’s goals include universal health care, free college tuition, state-developed public housing, criminal justice reform, creating a tax on assets and more. On his first day in office, he introduced a bill to ban corporate contributions to candidates throughout the state; that bill is stuck in committee.
“I want everyone to have health care, everyone to be housed and everyone to have the right to education,” he said.
Lee said his open and direct communication style — which he learned as a senator and president of the Associated Students of UC Davis — is popular with constituents, but not always with fellow lawmakers.
“Constituents ask hard questions, like ‘Am I going to get mortgage relief?’ All the hard questions need direct answers in the moment,” Lee said. “I’m very direct to my colleagues. Not everyone likes that — there’s a culture of getting along to get along.”
He compared the state Legislature to a workplace where everyone is hired (by voters) to accomplish different goals. “Really, politics is unlike any other workplace that exists in the world,” he said.
He said he thought he was done with politics after serving in ASUCD, but when then-Assembly member Kansen Chu decided not to seek reelection, Lee said several people encouraged him to run. He’d already worked as a staff member in the state Legislature and had a list of progressive priorities that, as it turned out, lined up with voters’ wants. Lee vowed not to accept corporate campaign contributions and was the top Democratic vote-getter in a crowded primary field before winning the general election in a landslide.
He took office in December 2020, so the pandemic has shaped most of his time, including modifications like Zoom town halls and virtual one-on-one meetings with constituents. However, he said government responses to the pandemic have opened the conversation to progressive ideas that were previously off the table, like direct stimulus payments and eviction moratoriums.
“All these things we’re doing — obviously in context of a pandemic, an emergency — they’re testaments to the transformative power we have in people’s lives,” he said. “I do not doubt there are thousands of people who are sheltered, who have a livelihood and who are literally alive because of our direct actions today.”
For now, he may still be facing an uphill battle against current interests. When interviewed last year, of the 16 bills he introduced, only nine were still active. But he’s trying to ensure “more queer, young, people of color get into office.” He endorsed Janani Ramachandran, a queer and lesbian Indian American woman who this past summer advanced to the general election in an East Bay special Assembly election (she lost).
“If the demographics and values of legislature change, you’ll see progress like an unending merry-go-round,” Lee said. “The show will really begin.”