ORLANDO — Maxwell Alejandro Frost was riding a scooter to the city’s Pride parade as part of his historic bid for Congress when he brought up what had been weighing on him so heavily that day. His grandma, Zenaida Argibay, had died that morning.
The 25-year-old Democrat zoomed toward his campaign float, a flatbed truck carrying a band composed of good friends from high school. Many of the streets were still lined with debris from Hurricane Ian on this recent Saturday. When he hit a no-ride zone, he parked his scooter and walked the rest of the way.
His mention of his 97-year-old grandmother, known as Yeya, was brief, mostly to note her death made it a hard day. But Frost talked about other subjects. He was thinking about getting a scooter to commute to Capitol Hill; he just missed a call from Representative Ayanna Pressley; and he hadn’t had a chance to listen to the new album by the pop-rock band The 1975.
Politicians experience love and loss like anyone else, but given his age, Frost’s situation is unusual. He is likely to become the first Gen Z member of Congress after Tuesday’s election, following his summer primary victory in a safely Democratic district. By the time many members of the House of Representatives — average age 58.4 years — are elected, their grandparents are long gone. Frost wanted to rent an RV to bring Argibay to the US Capitol to see him sworn in.
“I think about my grandma a lot in the work that I do,” Frost said. She had little schooling, and everyone in his household spoke Spanish when he was growing up because she didn’t understand much English.
“There’s so many abuelas, there’s so many people who don’t get the political talk, so how are you going to talk to them?” he said.
This gets at what Frost, an Afro-Latino adopted by his family at birth, is hoping to teach his fellow Democrats in Congress: the art of messaging. Prone to overanalyzing, Democrats often struggle to convey their policies and beliefs as concisely as Republicans. But with the rise of new, younger, and more diverse members of the party like Frost, change could be coming.
The generation born beginning in 1997, Gen Z leans progressive and pro-government, according to the Pew Research Center. To hear Frost tell it, his generation has more empathy, a deep belief that we are “all part of this grand mosaic of humanity.” His vision isn’t so much on specific outcomes as it is on the representation itself, that he’ll fight for constituents because their values align.
“I just hope to bring the heart of an organizer and what I believe is important and how we can bring people together on messaging and the way we talk about the issues,” he said.
Frost is a potential bright spot for Democrats in an uphill midterm election year. He’s not the only Gen Z candidate on the ballot for Congress: Karoline Leavitt, 25, is the Republican challenger to Representative Chris Pappas, a New Hampshire Democrat, in a competitive race. But Frost has a surer path to victory over the Republican in his race, Calvin Wimbish, a retired Green Beret colonel, to replace Democrat Val Demings.
The district centered around Orlando is a stronghold for Democrats in Florida, a state where the party has had a bad run in recent elections. Asked about Democrats’ troubles in the state, Frost pointed to the success of progressive measures such as the 2020 ballot initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15, and the 2018 governor’s race that Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly won.
“I don’t think any state is worth giving up on,” Frost said. “Look at Kansas,” where a referendum to protect access to abortion easily won this summer. Democrats need to play a long game, he argued, and the work takes years and consistent investment.
Far from a newcomer to politics, Frost has been on the scene for a decade after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre motivated him to get involved as a teenager. His background includes being the national organizing director at March For Our Lives, a youth-led anti-gun-violence group formed after the 2018 Parkland high school shooting in Florida, and working on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
Yet Frost underestimated how hard it would be to run for Congress. He quit his job, but his savings ran out quickly and he started driving for Uber at night to pay bills. If he had kids or someone relying on him financially, he said, he would have had to drop out of the race.
“It’s really, really hard to run a federal race if you’re 35 or 45, let alone 25,” said Ray Reed, a 25-year-old organizer of Gen Z voters who himself lost a Democratic congressional primary this year in Missouri. Frost “has to deal with all of the trappings of being a young person while also essentially running a million dollar . . . organization.”
Frost has a youthful candor about the Democratic Party’s faults.
For example, he thinks it is too single-minded in its message to different demographic groups. With Latino voters, it’s about immigration, and for Black voters, it’s about criminal justice. But those voters have broader interests as well, Frost said.
“I think it’s important that Democrats meet people where they’re at,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we have just this broad messaging about world-building.”
Frost realizes he’s got a lot of eyes on him as the first in a looming generational shift in Congress, especially in a party with calcified leadership ranks. But more broadly, he could be among the first of a generation whose leaders are being looked to as saviors for a planet in trouble. “The kids will save us” has become the oft-repeated line by people who have all but thrown up their hands on problems like climate change and gun violence.
So, does Frost think he and other members of Gen Z will save the world?
He laughed at the question.
“I don’t think it should be up to just Gen Z to save the world. I think it has to be up to all of us. A multigenerational, multiracial movement, people coming together to fight for the world we believe in,” he said. “Can Gen Z bring a new energy, fire, perspective that can maybe act as a domino effect that helps propel change? Of course, I think so.”
Frost’s appeal isn’t limited to his generational peers. One of his campaign volunteers at the Pride parade was Joyce Hernandez, 67, a Democrat who lives in Orlando. “I want to give him a chance‚” she said. “I believe he is going to end up doing a lot more than people think.”
As the float wound its way through the packed downtown, Frost seemed to be enjoying himself, but later admitted he had stepped aside throughout the day to cry.
He had spent the previous night holding his grandma’s hand at his parents’ house. Her health had been failing for months, but Frost knew things were different in her last week, in part because a woman who usually was capable of eating a “whole-ass branzino” wasn’t eating much.
After the parade, he ran into an old family friend at his campaign booth at the Pride festival. She took him aside to chat quietly, and as they pulled away from a hug, Frost was teary-eyed. He wiped his face with his shirt.
Frost said the friend had told him that his grandma was really proud of him and that she would have wanted him to go on with his campaigning that day. It would have brought his grandma, the friend said, a lot of “alegría,” or joy.