A new generation in Congress
By Pablo Manriquez
Congressman Maxwell Frost is an artist. In middle school, he formed a salsa band with his friends and played drums. During his sophomore year at the Osceola County School for the Arts, the kid who would become the first Congressman of his generation performed in the parade at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C.
“It was Max Frost’s idea,” high school counselor Donna Hart said in a 2013 interview about the effort to raise money to cover the trip’s expenses and solicit a letter of recommendation from then-Senator Bill Nelson. Frost told NPR he wanted his salsa band, Seguro Que Si, to represent the Latinos at the inauguration because it was Latino voters who had elected Obama in Florida. Local news coverage of the January parade shows Frost at the drums, surrounded by his bandmates, goading the president and first lady Michele Obama to their feet with his drumstick as their float drives by the inaugural grandstand.
“We made Obama dance salsa,” laughed Frost, recalling the performance. “I used to joke that I peaked in high school, but that joke doesn’t work anymore now that I’m going to Congress.” Frost said campaigning to perform at Obama’s inauguration was formative. “It was really there that the combination of arts, policy, politics, and movement work started coming together,” he said.
Nine years later, Frost took a break from his winning Congressional campaign in Florida to volunteer at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Then he returned to beat Calvin Wimbush by 19 points to win Florida’s 10th Congressional district as the first House member from a rising generation of political youth. Frost replaced retiring Democratic Representative Val Demings, who lost her senatorial race to Republican incumbent Marco Rubio.
Gen Z was born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. They are digital natives, the first generation born into a world connected by the internet. Stopping school shootings is the top policy priority for Frost’s generation, according to a July report by the Walton Family Foundation.
In September, President Biden announced an executive order creating a federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention at a ceremony on the White House South Lawn. The president spoke from a podium flanked by Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris, who will lead the new office. Frost’s parents got the presidential treatment when Biden beckoned them to stand and be applauded.
“Because gun violence is a daily event in this country, we have to work on this issue every single day, and establish it as a federal daily priority,” said Frost at a press conference on Capitol Hill announcing a bill with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy.
“What folks have to realize right now is that we don’t have a single point that coordinates gun violence prevention through different agencies. Having this office in the White House is going to be helpful in coordinating a thoughtful response to gun violence,” Frost told CBS News after the ceremony on the South Lawn.
A year before, Maxwell Frost had been houseless for a month during the campaign. “I got priced out of my home here in Orlando,” Frost recalled. “I was getting denied at places right and left because I didn’t have a job. I was an unemployed full-time candidate [and] Uber driver who was not making enough to afford the places me, my sister, and my girlfriend were looking to live.”
Frost’s housing challenges followed him to the Beltway where he tweeted about losing his application fee after being denied an apartment. “My credit’s always been great, actually,” Frost said in January. “I’ve been blessed to be full time in the campaign space since I was 18 years old, and had a great job before I quit to run for office.”
The Federal Election Commission prohibits congressional candidates from spending campaign funds for personal use, though they can pay themselves a salary after filing for their party’s primary. So Frost drove Uber at night to make ends meet, a challenge he said is unique to candidates from poor backgrounds.“My generation already is going to own the least amount of assets of any generation if the trends continue. On top of that, now we’ve been pushed into the renters’ world, and now it’s becoming harder and harder to even rent,” said Frost, who earns a $174,000 annual salary as a Member of Congress.
“I was denied within an hour and a half,” he continued about his rejected apartment application in D.C. “There wasn’t a human that looked at my application. My numbers were run through a machine, and the machine said ‘denied,’ and when I called the leasing office … they say there’s nothing they can do even though I’m about to be in Congress.”
In Orlando, Frost rented from a local landlord. “I was able to sit down with the person and talk with her and suss it out,” he said about finding housing on the campaign trail. “We blew through hundreds of dollars of application fees on these bigger companies that are not even based in Orlando. A lot of these companies view application fees as a revenue source.… That should be illegal.”
Frost said housing and transportation are his constituency’s top priorities. “We have the worst housing crisis per capita in the country right now here in Central Florida,” he said. “Our average commute time is going through the roof. We need more affordable housing near our city centers. That way people can move and be near opportunities.”
Spanish is Frost’s first language. He was born to a Puerto Rican mother of Lebanese descent and a Haitian father but was adopted at birth by a Cuban-American mother and white father from Kansas. “We speak Spanglish in the house, and I know that’s the same for a lot of Latino families in the district,” Frost told The Hill. “My abuela taught me early on to always look out for my community,” she said in a bilingual campaign ad during the primary.
“He’s coming into a place that he’s never been before, but he has the skills and ability to do well here,” Demmings said in January. “I have told him to remember that everybody around him wants something. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He has the knowledge, but wisdom and experience will help him navigate the sometimes treacherous waters here. And wisdom and experience only comes with time. So he needs to listen and he’ll be fine.”
The freshman legislator is an avid music listener and performer. Frost and New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman gave a freestyle take on “Triumph” by Wu Tang Clan that was well-received at the Democratic issues conference in March. “The majority of artists are actually working artists. They’re not like insanely rich or anything. They go on tour and make enough money to pay their bills,” said Frost, who wrote a letter in March to the head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement opposing a proposed fee hike for performers who require a visa to tour in the United States.
“Things like this have the potential to fly below the radar,” Frost said at the time. “As an artist myself who comes from the music industry, it makes the issue really important to me. Our independent, small, and midsize venues are distressed about this. Foreign artists can’t afford to come here and play these low-key venues with these fees.”
Frost tells LATINO Magazine that he’s frustrated by the dysfunction of the House Republican majority that impacted freshmen like Frost upon arrival when they could not be sworn in until the House elected a Speaker. It took fifteen votes for Kevin McCarthy to win the gavel, then nine months to be fired by a majority vote of the Congress that included Frost and every member of the Democratic minority.
“I have legislation that we’re waiting to get out, that we’re really excited about. We’ve had to put it on hold,” Frost said in October as Republicans scrambled to fill the power vacuum left by McCarthy’s ouster. “They’re not fit to govern.”
The meteoric rise of Gen Z’s first congressman has seen Frost go from houseless Uber driver to progressive icon in Washington, DC. But he tries to stay humble.
“Being the first of anything in an institution like Congress is, number one, worth celebrating,” he said. “But there’s an inherent added responsibility of working to bridge the gap between cool and consciousness to really build a movement that we need across the country—not just in the halls of Congress.”