Alex Lee says working in politics has always been about helping people.
“It wasn’t really my dream to become an elected official or anything,” Lee said. “I think it started as early as when I applied to college, and that was during the election campaign of Barack Obama.”
That year, 2008, was also the year California’s proposition to ban gay marriage was approved by voters.
Society has come a long way since then. Lee hopes to become the state’s first openly bisexual State Assemblymember and, at 25, the youngest Asian member of the legislature, thus helping make state government more inclusive and representative of the people.
But while representation matters, so does effective policy. And nothing appears to be more important to Californians right now than affordable housing.
The housing crisis is the biggest economic issue since the Great Recession, Lee said. Throughout the Bay Area, people crowd together in multi-generational households to afford rent. Lee said he wants to focus on building more affordable housing by not-for-profit developers.
“It will be difficult, but it will be doable,” Lee said. Supporting truly progressive legislation requires bravery, he added, but once one legislator acts, more will be likely to follow. In addition, Lee said housing doesn’t fall neatly within party lines.
“People are really open to these ideas and aren’t as myopic as they might seem,” Lee said.
The Democratic candidate who grew up in Milpitas and San Jose said local and state governments share an equal role in increasing the state’s affordable housing stock, with the state determining broad goals and county and city governments creating the policies needed to achieve those goals.
However, Lee said the state shouldn’t go so far as to tell each individual city or community how much housing to build, though it would be useful to provide communities with funding to build affordable housing.
“Things can be very different and can be nuanced,” Lee said. For example, the housing needs of a community in south Milpitas can look very different from the Great Mall area.
With that, Lee said the state should enforce the housing production goals for broad regions and have accountability measures in place to make sure cities and counties approve and build enough housing.
“There should be more teeth in these things,” Lee said.
Lee said he has the experience to get it done, which is what led members in his community to urge him to run for office.
Milpitas Planning Commissioner Timothy Alcorn said he’s known Lee since high school. Alcorn said Lee was a high-energy student who was upbeat and encouraging to other students.
“He was… the kind of guy who would walk up to you at seven in the morning and be like, ‘Good morning!'” Alcorn said. “And you’d be like, ‘Ugh, it’s too early.'”
Alcorn was astounded to see Lee’s swift rise from high school classmate to legislative professional. After Lee announced his candidacy for California Assembly, Alcorn had set up a meeting with him to discuss the issues. The commissioner said Lee, as a young progressive, brings the fresh perspective to a legislative body sorely lacking younger voices.
“A governing body should be encompassing of the community, and the community involves younger people and older people,” Alcorn said. “If you just have a governing body of older people, you’re not having a governing body that’s reflective of the community.”
No corporate money
In his college years Lee interned for then-Congressman Mike Honda, after which he worked as a Legislative Policy Advisor for State Senator Henry Stern.
The young candidate is inspired by Bernie Sanders, who he said promotes a style of government that benefits everyday people. Lee said it’s important for the working class to participate in politics, and that corporate money holds too much sway over legislative priorities.
Like the Vermont senator, Lee has refused money from corporate donors, including from lobbyists in the fossil fuel industry. He said political candidates should take a stand against corporate money to keep themselves accountable to the people.
“That should be the case in all of California,” Lee said. “Corporations, with their inordinate amount of resources and influence, are really steering us down a path that is less sustainable and really bad for the working class.”
Lee said the Bay Area is relatively well-integrated in terms of race and income compared to other communities, which has led to an open-mindedness in the region. Lee credits the area’s social activism with helping him feel like he and others can make a difference.
“The people are its strongest asset,” Lee said. “Not some big tourist attraction or some fancy buildings… something that is more intangible.”
According to campaign finance reports, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 19, Lee received $188,605 in donations and spent $77,797. Lee is running against Republican Bob Brunton in the Nov. 3 general election. He trailed Brunton in the March primary by a little more than 3,100 votes in a 9-candidate race.
AT A GLANCE
Name: Alex Lee
Family: Hopefully will have kids soon
Political affiliation: Democratic
Education: Milpitas High School 2013, University of California Davis 2017 with two B.A.s (Political Science and Communications)
Profession: Legislative Policy Advisor for the California Assembly
Top 3 priorities: Fix the housing crisis, fight climate change, end corporate influence in politics
Top 3 endorsements: California Democratic Party, Congressman Ro Khanna, state Assemblymember Kansen Chu
Special talent: Filmmaking
In one sentence, why vote for you?: Status-quo politics has broken this country and that’s why I do things differently by rejecting all corporate special interest money and running a true progressive, grassroots campaign to fix our systemic issues.
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.