California has elected its youngest state lawmaker in more than eight decades, elevating a 25-year-old progressive Democrat who already has years of legislative experience to the state Assembly.
Alex Lee survived a crowded nine-candidate primary election in March, then trounced his Republican rival by winning 73% of the vote in a San Francisco Bay Area district that includes part of Silicon Valley.
He plans to keep living with his mom in San Jose for the time being and had to take a part-time gig economy delivery job to make ends meet during his Assembly District 25 campaign.
Lee has worked for five different lawmakers either as a college intern or more recently a paid aide, quickly exhibiting such “encyclopedic knowledge” of pending legislation that “he became kind of the local Wikipedia for what’s happening on the Senate floor,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, who employed Lee from 2017 until he left last year to work for another lawmaker.
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“He makes me look like an old man," joked Stern, 38, who was the first Millennial elected to the Senate four years ago. "I thought I had something fresh going on there. But now Gen Z comes up and what do I know? Now I’m a Boomer.”
Lee prevailed despite setting himself other obstacles, like not accepting corporate campaign money.
He said Friday that the first bill he will introduce when he takes office next month will propose to prohibit corporate contributions directly to candidates. He said he may extend that ban to ballot measures and would create a system for publicly financed elections.
“Having run an election, I clearly know how detrimental and corrosive corporate money can be in an election cycle,” Lee said.
And having spent some time out of financial necessity working gig jobs through what he referred to as “grueling, terrible wage-exploitation apps,” he's particularly upset that ride-hailing and delivery companies prevailed in carving out an exemption to a new California labor law after spending a record $200 million to pass Proposition 22.
The last time someone younger was elected to the California Legislature, the nation was just clawing its way out of the Great Depression and was on the cusp of World War II.
Maurice E. Atkinson, also a Democrat, was 23 when he was elected to the Assembly in 1938. There previously were four other state legislators younger than Lee in the last century, said Alex Vassar, the California State Library’s legislative historian.
Lee was Atkinson's age, just 23, when he decided to run for office, and by his calculation has since knocked on 30,000 doors seeking voters' support.
“I think voters were very encouraged that a young person like me has so much experience in policy making and governing," he said. “I would run into folks when we were door-knocking who are 80 years old, who would say, ‘Our generation screwed it up so it’s time for you all to fix all these problems for us.’ And they said it in a very encouraging way.”
Lee considers himself to be part of “many marginalized communities," including being Asian American and openly bisexual.
“As someone who’s struggled with housing security and financial security, I also understand that can cause anxiety. And that’s going to be informing my perspective going into office,” said Lee, whose new gig carries a salary of nearly $115,000 a year.
Neither Lee's Republican opponent nor Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron responded to requests for comment.
Lee will undoubtedly run into fellow lawmakers who will be skeptical or “they’ll say, ‘Wait your turn,’” Stern said from experience.
But “he’s speaking for a real demographic that is under-represented in politics in general,” Stern said. ”I hope it’s a trend. I think our generation and the next generations coming up have something to say, and he’s proven that you don’t really have to wait.”