Black History 365: Maxwell Alejandro Frost

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Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old gun violence prevention advocate, first became involved in politics after 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

A decade later, Frost is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in Florida’s Orlando-area 10th congressional district, and he’s grappling once again with the implications of the country’s most recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas.

“Just last week, I was at a vigil for the Buffalo shooting,” Frost told Insider in a phone interview on Friday. “I’ve actually been to over 60 vigils for shootings in the past decade. 60 vigils that I can remember.”

—Maxwell Alejandro Frost (@MaxwellFrostFL) May 24, 2022

“It is, in a weird way, bringing things full circle,” he added, remarking on the similarities of the school shootings in Sandy Hook and Uvalde and the lack of legislative action in the nearly ten years since then. “I don’t know if there’s a starker condemnation of the government and the inaction than that.”

Frost, a member of Generation Z and what he dubs the “mass shooting generation,” is running to replace Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who’s making a bid for the US Senate. In 2016, he survived a close brush with gun violence himself at a Halloween event in downtown Orlando when two men nearby got into a shooting match with one another. “We all started running,” he says. “I remember I had to pick up my friend who froze on the ground.”

Now, he stands a very good chance of becoming Congress’s newest, most prominent gun violence prevention advocate.

Running on a platform of gun violence prevention, tackling the climate crisis, reforming the criminal justice system, and preventing future pandemics, Frost has already garnered significant support from national groups, including two major Congressional caucuses, several progressive advocacy groups, and six members of Congress. He also has the backing of Sam and Gabe Bankman-Fried, a crypto industry billionaire pouring millions into boosting candidates focused on stopping future pandemics as part of an effective altruist campaign.

“He really is an intersectional candidate,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of Frost’s biggest progressive backers, told Insider at the Capitol. “I don’t know what I was doing at 25, but I definitely was not thinking about running for office.”

Insider caught up with Frost as he swung through Washington, DC earlier this month for a series of campaign-related events, including a fundraiser at a rooftop bar in the city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood hosted by Data for Progress founder Sean McElwee, former NexGen America Executive Director Ben Wessel, and a smattering of other progressive activists.

“This is my first ever candidate fundraiser that I’ve ever been involved in,” Wessel told the crowd at the May 10 fundraiser. “Because I really believe in Maxwell.”

‘You get in for one reason’

Speaking over the hum of live music and car traffic on the street below, Frost recounted the moment he first learned of the school shooting that served as his “call to action.” Then a student at a performing arts school in Orlando, he learned of the Sandy Hook massacre while “loading up on junk food” at a TGI Fridays shortly before he and his friends were set to perform at a concert.

“There was just kind of a silence that fell across the entire restaurant,” he said. “We all simultaneously looked up at the television screens and saw that somebody walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered a bunch of students and their teachers.”

Frost begged his parents to let him travel to DC for the victims’ memorial, where he met Matthew Soto, the brother of one of the shooting victims. “I mean, seeing a 16-year-old with the demeanor of a 60-year-old, crying over his sister who was murdered for just going to class that morning,” Frost said. “I made a commitment: for the rest of my life, I’m gonna fight for a world where no one has to feel that way, the way I saw Matthew feel.”

He later became a volunteer lobbyist with the Newtown Action Alliance, jump-starting what has now amounted to a full decade of heavy involvement in political campaigns and causes. He’s since worked on three presidential campaigns, several state-level Florida campaigns including the 2018 “Amendment Four” campaign that restored felons’ right to vote in the state, the American Civil Liberties Union, and as the National Organization Director for March for Our Lives, the gun violence prevention group created in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

While working for the ACLU in 2019, Frost played a part helping to pressure then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to reverse his support for the Hyde Amendment — which bars federal funding of abortion services through Medicaid — by filming the encounter as another activist pressed him on the issue.

Biden has since sought to repeal the provision as President, though efforts have been unsuccessful so far due to continued Republican opposition in Congress.

“You get in for one reason, and then you find out there’s a lot of things that are messed up,” said Frost.

Frost says he’s worked as an advocate full-time since graduating high school because he couldn’t afford to attend a typical 4-year university. He’s currently enrolled at Valencia College in Orlando and says he plans on finishing his degree while serving in Congress, pointing to Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who left college at Boston University after two years to take care of her ailing mother.

Frost was adopted as an infant; his adopted mother is a special education teacher who originally came from Cuba as part of the “Freedom Flights” in the late 1960s, while his father is a musician. “Growing up, there’s always been a lot of music in the house,” he says.

But last year, while being urged by fellow activists to run for Congress, he reconnected with his biological mother in June. He found out then that he was one of eight biological siblings and that his biological mother struggled with addiction when he was born; she told him that he was trembling, as an infant, in the weeks after his birth due to withdrawals from crack cocaine.

“I wasn’t mad. I was just incredibly sad,” he told the fundraiser attendees. “Because my biological mother, a woman of color, was born into a ZIP code where she had gotten in this cycle of drugs, poverty, crime. And I knew it wasn’t her fault.”

It was after receiving the approval of his biological mother that he made his final decision to run for office.

The path to victory

Despite his youth, Frost comes to his first run for office with a formidable degree of institutional backing — far more than other upstart progressives that came before him.

His backers in Congress include Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — “he’s the kind of leader we need in troubled times,” she told Insider at the Capitol — and Reps. Jayapal, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Ro Khanna of California, and Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones of New York. 

The political arms of both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced their support for him earlier this month, adding to an existing well of support from gun control prevention advocates and groups including the Brady Campaign and Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting.

And he’s already raised close to $1 million — as of March, more than all of his Democratic primary opponents combined — for a bid in one the state’s most Democratic-leaning districts.

“He’s an exceptional fundraiser, and that’s not something that a lot of people at any age are,” Jayapal told Insider.

Frost is also set to benefit from $1 million in outside funding in support of his campaign from Protect Our Future — the pandemic prevention-focused super PAC backed by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried — which called Frost a “champion for pandemic prevention in Congress” in a May 16 press release.

But he’s also competing with a crowded field that includes state Sen. Randolph Bracy, who’s represented portions of Orlando for the last decade, and Rev. Terence Gray, who’s served as the senior pastor at a local church for the past 15 years. Both are likely to have higher name recognition than Frost, and Wes Hodge, chair of the local Orange County Democratic Party, pointed out that money isn’t everything.

“The fundraising is impressive,” Hodge told Insider. “The question is, will he be able to utilize that war chest effectively to get himself introduced to the district?” 

But Hodge also said that the recent redrawing of the 10th district — which shifted the boundaries more towards East Orange County and away from Bracy’s traditional base in the Western part of the county — could make the race more competitive for Frost and the other candidates. 

“You’re getting a younger demographic, you’re incorporating [the University of Central Florida],” said Hodge. “Not that I would discount any of the other candidates, because many do have a lot of connections in the community.”

And the ongoing back and forth between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state legislature over the final shape of the state’s political maps has led to something of a freeze in traditional campaigning, at least until the contours of the district were finalized last month.

“Nobody’s really been doing anything aggressive because nobody really knew where the lines were,” said Hodge.

‘Different allies in different work’

Frost advocates for standard progressive priorities including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and working to “build toward a future without prison.”

“Oh, one hundred percent,” he told Insider when asked whether he supports expanding the size of the Supreme Court.

But he conspicuously avoids aligning himself with any particular faction within the Democratic Party, offering praise for Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut on matters of gun violence and for President Biden on ensuring the rapid distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in a specific box,” he said, pointing to his work on coalition-building at both March for Our Lives and the ACLU. “We’ll sometimes have different allies in different work.”

He would also be the first — and potentially the only — Gen Z member of Congress. Currently, the youngest member of Congress is embattled Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who’s now on his way out after losing to a primary challenger earlier this month. That came after a series of scandals that concluded with the leak of several compromising videos of the 26-year old congressman.

“I do think he’s giving young people and Gen Z a bad name,” Frost said of Cawthorn. “Not because of the things that have come out recently, but because he is a fascist, racist person.” 

But while embracing the Gen Z label, Frost also rejects the idea that the problems his generation faces are dissimilar from those faced by other generations.

“The way we describe the issues might be in a different light because of the experiences that we’ve had,” said Frost, before insisting that “there’s a connection between our generations, and our shared humanity and struggle, throughout the systems that our country has in place.” 

Frost has also placed an unusually strong emphasis on pandemic prevention, working with Gabe Bankman-Fried’s Guarding Against Pandemics to develop a plan calling for investments in research, vaccine development, early detection technology, and other measures to minimize the economic harm and loss of human life that could come with a potential future pandemic.

“As an organizer, something I’m always thinking about is how do we win hearts and minds,” said Frost. “Now’s the time to court public opinion and get people excited about research and retrofitting buildings. I think as time passes, it’s gonna be harder to get people excited about that.”

“I’ve been banging this drum in Congress for over a year now,” Gabe Bankman-Fried told Insider. “And the thing that we found was that this issue has a million supporters, but very few champions like Maxwell.”