Alex Lee, 24
The youngest candidate by far in his election, South Bay native Alex Lee is running for Assemblymember of his home district. After serving as President of UC Davis, he hopes to continue fighting for disenfranchised communities by tackling California’s housing issues.
What was the best piece of advice you received before you ran for office?
You don't actually need that much money to get to real voters. I was very afraid I’d need to raise millions of dollars to run for Assembly. But my mentor really broke it down. It's really about your hard work more than money.
When did the lightbulb go off? When did you realize you want to run for office?
I didn't really seriously think about it until my incumbent member Kansen Chu announced that he would not run for re-election for his seat. That stirred something in me because in 2016, Assemblymember Low had actually, half-jokingly, said, “Hey, you should run.”
But I think that drive has always been in me. It sprung out when that happened. I started thinking I actually think I can do it. I think I have the right skill set. And I have enough perseverance.
One of the main issues you want to focus on is the housing crisis. This touches a variety of issues from gentrification, increasing home prices, homelessness, and more. How do you plan on tackling these issues in the Assembly?
The big central theme around my campaign is the housing crisis, and the housing crisis obviously manifests differently to everyone.
Or it can be you're an older family that wants to move out, but you're locked in because of the way property taxes are out of reach. Or you're like me, where you want to start a family where you grew up, but you're never going to make a $1.5 million house down payment. Or you're already struggling to make rent, how's that going to happen?
The future is endangered by the housing crisis. How I want to solve that is really using all the legislative instruments that we have at our disposal because the policy environment for a large part has determined why we're in the housing crisis. We really have to think about the role of the private sector and the public sector to deliver affordable housing for people, because housing is a basic fundamental right. Without it, everything else will be going to collapse on itself. After we get everyone housed in the housing they deserve, we can finally work on tackling the other big issues.
Now, this actually would not be your first time elected to office. You were Associated Students President at UC Davis. What skills do you think you gained from that position? And how you apply them as an assemblymember?
As AS President at Davis, I learned a lot of political realities. As president, I was not only the advocate for 29,000 students, but also, I was basically the CEO in charge of a $13 million nonprofit because our government, unlike student governments in the UC system, ran the university's highest-level budget. We ran the whole city's transit system which is $4 million operation. We ran the cafeterias and restaurants.
Managing all that I learned how to figure out the politics of budgeting. It’s always kind of a zero-sum game, where someone wins, and someone loses. When you're working with very passionate students who want to see their pet projects advance, I have to figure out what is the priority? What benefits the maximum number of students.
At the same time, I was also meeting with Regents, such as then-Lt. Governor Newsom. I came to him to discuss tuition hikes and he used some of my talking points in a meeting. I was surprised!
But really, I am fighting for all students. It's a very disenfranchised class. As students we’re just transitory in our status, but we're really burdened with a lot of things like student debt, crappy education systems, a lot of things that need a lot of strong advocates. I learned how to have tough political conversations with people that will tell you straight up that what you want, they won't do. I learned how to navigate persuading people to work with me and how to balance everyone's expectations to do well.
When you are a student body president, you are the sole representative of all students to some people, especially the Regents and state legislators. So I've been in the rooms where I was treated as the voice of the students when obviously I can't be the monolithic voice. But I'm given that opportunity to do so. I think I know that perspective of being a representative. Sure, it’s a smaller scale, but I have the skills from that experience.
You’ve worked for Congressman Mike Honda and Assmeblymember Evan Low and interned at the Asian Pacific Islander Capitol Association in Sacramento, so you interacted with some of the leading Asian Americans in California politics. Asian Americans are often critiqued for having low voter turnout and lacking political and civic engagement. Have you found that to be true? Can we activate the Asian American community?
I think voter turnout has improved over the years as with every community of color. I will say though; the activism is kind of split. Broadly speaking, the older folks tend to be more conservative and they will turn out, especially in my community, for issues related to education and marijuana. The younger crowd tend to gravitate towards social justice issues like gentrification.
Our community has a generational divide. Especially in East Asian cultures, we have a Confucian mentality that teaches us to respect the older folks. They always know what's right.
I identify as a progressive young API person and sometimes when speaking to the elders you have to navigate that mentality while at the same time trying to convince them to see it your way.
As you just mentioned, you identify as a progressive. Progressive word is thrown around so often nowadays. In your own words, how do you define progressive?
When I say I am a progressive Democrat, it means I am fighting for a government that actually reflects the ordinary people and that is actually run by ordinary people. I am against super big corporations that virtually control our government.
“I think you should vote for a power that rests in the hands of ordinary people, not just people who have the time and ability to do politics.”
I think you should vote for a power that rests in the hands of ordinary people, not just people who have the time and ability to do politics. I'm fighting for things like voting rights for people who are incarcerated, voting rights for all residents regardless of immigration status. There's a lot of immigrants here who are very active in the community including undocumented immigrants, people who have green cards, or people at varying levels in the process. They’re active business leaders or community leaders, and they deserve at least the minimum of a vote.
It’s also fighting for things like social housing, which we don't have a strong history of in this country, compared to countries in Europe and Asia where government takes a very active role in building and maintaining housing. We should get to a point where affordable housing isn't at the mercy of private developers. I’m all about trying to get to a level where we have more public ownership of things the public needs and not just people who have big pay and small boardrooms. I want things that actually belong to us as a people as a collective. And that's what I mean by progressive.
Do you feel people have doubted you in this race because of your age?
People definitely doubted me for my age. There's been a very spectrum of reactions. There's certainly older folks, like council members or electeds who give me side-eye when I say I'm running. And then some people think it’s terrific.
“The why is in your community, the why is why you want to do this. I think it makes you shine through and you will stand a real fighting chance.”
I'm already knocking doors and 75% of the time, people will say, ‘Wow, you're the young candidate running? You're the person on the flyer!” Then when I talked to them about the issues and why it matters to me they get really impressed. A lot of people believe it’s time for a new generation leadership. I think people want that kind of refreshing outlook and perspective and option to choose someone who knows what they're talking about and has the energy to do so.
What is the best piece of advice you would give to another young Dem who's considering that run for office
You know, it's a ripple effect, right? I would always encourage them to go for it and do what you can. Remember the ground game, knocking on doors and talking to real voters is the most important piece. So many people will tell you it's about money or endorsements.
But if you work hard, and really remember the why. The why is in your community, the why is why you want to do this. I think it makes you shine through and you will stand a real fighting chance.
If you don't let any other stuff distract you, the voters will know it and understand it. They will choose the right leader. If your heart is in the right place, you're going to get there. And if you're ready to work your butt off, then you can do it.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.