When he isn’t in Sacramento, Assemblyman Alex Lee still lives with his mom in North San Jose, something he said he refuses to be ashamed of.
“There are people that … like to make fun of me about but I’m like ‘look, this is the reality of probably your kids too’,” Lee, 25, said in a recent phone interview.
Last year, Lee became the state’s youngest legislator in more than 80 years after he captured 70.5 percent of the general election vote in Assembly District 25, which includes North San Jose, Milpitas and parts of Fremont.
Lee said former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign partially spurred his interest in politics, although he also considered a career in filmmaking when he was applying to colleges at that time.
Lee would go on to attend University of California, Davis, and intern for roughly a half-dozen state legislative offices, including those of Sen. Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell.
The 25th District seat opened up in 2019, when then-Assemblyman Kansen Chu announced he would not run for re-election in 2020 and run instead for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Chu ultimately lost to Supervisor Otto Lee.
Alex Lee said he didn’t have a moment where he thought the campaign was his to lose until after the primary, in which he outlasted seven other candidates and secured the second of two spots in the general election by roughly 1,700 votes.
“I did not feel that until like almost two weeks after the primary ended,” he said. “That was when I was like ‘wow, that’s actually going to happen.’ Even the days after the primary when we were in the lead, I was like ‘this is going to change.'”
Lee credited the progressive bonafides his campaign professed as one of the main reasons he ultimately won. He would end up receiving an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, during the campaign.
In addition to being the state’s first post-Kurt Cobain legislator, Lee is also the state’s first openly bisexual legislator and the state’s youngest Asian American legislator, two firsts that he described as “cool” but added that he doesn’t want those parts of his identity to simply be fun facts.
“They’re important to me to get right because if we want to have more people of color, more queer people, more young people, I have to get it right,” he said. “I can’t screw it up and screw it up for the next people, and I take that responsibility seriously.”
Lee added that it’s important for young people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in politics and policy making going forward to ensure that their perspectives are heard.
When asked if government, at any level, represents the interests of people under 30, Lee gave a firm “no.”
“I fundamentally believe, wherever you are on the ideological spectrum, young people more and more recognize the realities that we’re living in, the crises we’re in,” he said. “That kind of urgency and perspective is necessary when you’re actually trying to make decisions that affect centuries of history.”
Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, said there’s credibility to the reputation politicians get for being out of touch, particularly with young people as legislative bodies tend to skew older and less diverse.
“When you have a generation that’s not being represented in such an important legislative body, or when you have so many young adults living at home with their parents because we’ve made it completely unaffordable for young people coming out of high school and college to be able to become independent because of our ridiculous housing costs, that demographic needs a voice,” Kalra said in a recent phone interview.
On Lee’s first day in office, he and Kalra introduced Assembly Bill 20, which would prohibit businesses from contributing to a political candidate’s campaign.
The bill faced a steep uphill climb, even in a state Legislature Democrats control with supermajorities in both chambers.
Lee said he campaigned on the bill as a chief priority, refusing to accept corporate donations as a candidate. He also argued the bill would essentially bring the state into conformity with campaign finance laws passed by 22 states and the federal government.
“I did not come up here and risk it all and run a very unorthodox campaign just to come up here and, at best, nibble away at problems,” Lee said.
Kalra, who chairs the California Legislative Progressive Caucus, praised Lee for starting his legislative career by taking big swings at complex policy issues, but noted that all elected officials eventually face a learning curve once in office.
Kalra noted he faced similar issues after he was first elected to the Assembly in 2016, even after spending eight years on the San Jose City Council.
“I think that he’s going through what a lot of us as progressives go through, especially in the early stages in the Legislature,” he said. “Learning how challenging it can be, both the bureaucracy as well as the different places a lot of our colleagues are, even within the Democratic Party.
“There’s a lot of disappointment and frustration that comes with being a progressive legislator,” Kalra said. “But the key to it is persistence, because the reality is that important, progressive legislation very rarely gets done the first time out of the gate.”
On Thursday, Lee faced that learning curve directly as AB 20 died in the Assembly’s Elections Committee, with just one of the committee’s seven members supporting it.
Lee also received a dressing down from committee Chair Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, who argued that the bill had too many loopholes and was too restrictive by using the phrase “business entity” to describe which campaign contributions it would prohibit.
“AB 20 won’t actually reduce the amount of corporate spending in politics, it will just shift that spending to less-transparent and less-accountable routes like independent expenditures,” Berman said Thursday during the committee meeting. “That is not progress.”
Since taking office in December, Lee has also helped introduce bills intended to establish a wealth tax and expand the availability of socialized housing — progressive priorities in an area where nearly 73 percent of voters cast a ballot for President Joe Biden last November.
He’s also collaborated with big-name state legislators like Assemblywomen Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland.
Wicks, who chairs the Assembly’s Select Committee on Social Housing, and Lee co-authored Assembly Bill 387, which would establish a state Social Housing Council with the intent of expanding the development of housing that is operated by a local housing authority or nonprofit rather than a private leasing company or landlord.
Lee framed the bill as a key to lessening the burden of the state’s housing crisis, particularly as more young people enter the housing market.
“The reality is most people in (my) generation, and probably younger than (me), probably will never dream of having home ownership in California unless they really, really strike out and are lucky in a lot of different ways or they have intergenerational wealth,” Lee said.
He added that the state’s woeful lack of housing affects every income demographic.
“High-income people need a place to live too, that’s just an objective truth … but we’re also then alienating and not providing for people that don’t have high means,” he said.
Eventually, Lee said he also hopes to help establish universal health care access across the state and reform the state’s justice system.
But none of those priorities will be a panacea on their own, he cautioned.
“It’s kind of scary to think, sometimes, as difficult as it is to make sure we have social housing and have universal health care in place and have wealth taxes to pay for it and all these things, that’s just the beginning of what we need,” he said. “There’s going to be so much more.”