Maxwell Frost’s Vision Meets Washington

Frost’s origin story required him to answer a question he had ignored for years. “I was adopted out of a pretty bad situation at birth,” he told me. “I never cared to know more about it.” People around Frost suggested that he find out who his biological mother was, not only for his own sake, but to insure that none of his detractors did so first. When he approached his adoptive parents about it, Maritza told him that his birth mother was a friend of a friend. They had been struggling to have children, and his birth mother hadn’t been in a position to raise one. Curious to learn more, Frost looked up her profile on Facebook and marvelled at the photographs of his biological mother. “I had never seen anyone who looks like me,” recalled Frost, whose adoptive parents are fair-skinned. As he scrolled through her Facebook page, he froze. Frost and his biological mother had a friend in common: his barber of ten years, Chris Dean.

Frost texted Dean one of the pictures: “Hey, do you know this person?” Within minutes, Dean called him to ask how he knew her. “Dude, that’s my biological mother,” Frost said. There was a moment of silence. “I used to live with your mom,” Dean responded. In the nineties, she and Dean had shared a flat with another man. “Where we was living was a little piece of apartment, we probably had one couch, we were trying to figure out food from day to day,” Dean later told me. People around them coped with stress through alcohol and drug use, he recalled. Dean had fallen out of touch with Frost’s biological mother, but they were still friends on social media. Frost asked him to make the introduction. “Max is ready to reach out to you,” Dean wrote.

During their first phone conversation, which lasted for about an hour, Frost’s biological mother told him that he was one of eight siblings. She and his biological father, who is Haitian, had been separated for years. “He could be gone,” Frost recalled her saying. She had been “at the most vulnerable point in her life” when she had him, as Frost would later put it in his first campaign ad. “The system had demonized and forgotten about her.” He pledged to voters to do the exact opposite: place their safety and well-being first, in Orlando, an area facing a spate of violence, along with rising evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness, particularly among the youth. Frost enthusiastically adopted a progressive stance on issues ranging from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal. He vowed to work toward ending gun violence and faithfully represent other Gen Z-ers, or, as he saw it, the country’s “mass-shooting generation.”

With a handful of volunteers, Frost launched his campaign from an Airbnb, where he was living temporarily after being priced out of his previous rental apartment. When the Airbnb, too, became unaffordable, they moved to a common area in the building where his campaign manager lived. “At least we had a pool table,” his manager, Kevin Lata, recalled. To get by, Frost worked as an Uber driver at night, in a yellow Kia Soul, a gig that helped pay the bills. The main challenge Frost faced at the time, Meghan McAnespie, a member of the data firm Grassroots Analytics, recalled, was: did he have the money to win? As McAnespie, who advised Frost, put it, his campaign was caught in a chicken-and-egg problem, where “money begets money and endorsements, which beget even more money.”

Over time, donations began trickling in, and so did endorsements, both from local officials and from notable national figures, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. When the primaries arrived, Frost emerged from a field of ten Democratic candidates, among them a state senator and two former members of Congress. By Election Day, he had raised more than two million dollars, mostly from voters who contributed an average of thirty-one dollars to his campaign. Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced crypto-financier, donated twenty-nine hundred dollars directly to Frost’s campaign, and a super PAC he supported spent nearly a million dollars in Frost’s favor. After Bankman-Fried was indicted, Frost gave the twenty-nine hundred dollars to charity. “I never solicited their support,” Frost said at the time. “I don’t want or need support from those scamming working folks, and I’m going to fight to get dark money out of politics.”

In Frost, young Floridians saw a candidate they could relate to, his friend Niyah Lowell said. “No disrespect to any of the other members,” Lowell added, “but they’re a little far removed, generationally and tax-bracket-wise. Now we have someone who is like us, knows exactly what we’re going through, in power.”

Last Tuesday night, after the third round of voting for Speaker, Frost returned to his office, which was largely empty. A heap of business cards, from trade unions, advocacy groups, and lobbyists, who had stopped by to meet with him that day, sat on the front desk. There was a suitcase filled with belongings left to unpack, and a smattering of books, mostly about Orlando, adorning some otherwise bare shelves near the entrance. A single piece of art hung next to Frost’s new desk. It was a large canvas, which took up an entire wall, with two portraits side by side: one of Frost, and the other of Joaquin Oliver, a seventeen-year-old student who was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, in Parkland, nearly five years ago.

The piece was a gift from Oliver’s father, Manuel, who had painted it during Frost’s campaign. Across its center were the words “TIME TO SAVE LIVES! SO, GET ON BOARD OR GET OUT OF OUR WAY!” Frost saw it as his North Star in Washington—an emblem of what his presence there stood for. To Manuel, who has been at the forefront of the anti-gun-violence movement since his son’s death, it had a personal meaning. “It’s an image meant to last,” Manuel told me. “A daily, living reminder from Joaquin to Maxwell, his people, and any of the members who set foot in that office.”

How Frost can live up to this, or any of his generation’s expectations, is the main question surrounding his tenure. His first days in Congress laid bare the institution’s many faults. Through fifteen rounds of votes—the longest since the mid-eighteen-hundreds—the House was unable to perform the basic task of choosing a Speaker. Round after round, while Republicans engaged in and sabotaged negotiations, Democrats watched from the sidelines. Late Friday night, as the scene devolved into quarrels, and even one sudden lunge, Frost found himself asking other lawmakers if this was the “craziest thing” they had witnessed in Congress. The answer was no—the January 6th insurrection was.

After two o’clock in the morning, Frost walked out of the House chamber, finally sworn in, thinking his first week in Congress would be a “microcosm of the next two years.” But his work as an organizer had taught him that progress is a function of time. “I’ve been thinking a lot about: What are the things we can get done in a bipartisan way? How can we snip at the edges? How do we uphold legislation that maybe won’t pass this year, but really sets the tone for the future?” he later told me. There were similarities between his present and past work. At the core, it was about swaying people’s opinions and gaining their support, be it for a cause or a bill. But none of that, Frost expected, would happen overnight. “If you’re beginning and ending in 2023 and 2024, you’re probably going to be very discouraged,” he said. “I think about things more than the two-year or four-year term. When you think about things that way, it gives you a lot more hope, because you get a really holistic picture of the movement—the movement of progressive legislation.” ♦

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