Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost on the Power of Gen Z, Family, and Organizing

We spent election night with the Frost campaign in Orlando. Now the 25-year-old congressman is set to be officially be sworn in.

Four minutes before eight on election night, as Hurricane Nicole closes in on Florida, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” ushers in Maxwell Alejandro Frost’s historic win: The 25-year-old is officially the first member of Gen Z — and the first Afro-Cuban — elected to Congress. Lamar’s lyrics, “Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon' be alright,” echo through the dim room of mostly Gen Z’ers at The Abbey in downtown Orlando. Frost had done the inconceivable in defeating Republican Calvin Wimbish, a 72-year-old retired Army Green Beret, and filling the 10th Congressional District seat vacated by 65-year-old, two-term Rep. Val Demings, proving wrong anyone who might see the young as inexperienced and unserious. 

Since announcing his run for office more than a year ago, Frost has shattered those stereotypes with every step and fiery speech, canvassing Central Florida on a platform of abortion rights, ending gun violence, and Medicare for All. Frost’s campaign has also been a litmus test for showing how ready Gen Z is to step into its power. Gen Z'ers have showed their frustration at the polls, showing up in droves, calling for game-changing leadership, and staving off the predicted red wave (63% voted blue). And now, in Frost, Gen Z has a seat in one of the country’s oldest institutions, one that is riddled with old money and old power. 

On Election Day, Frost and his team begin before dawn, going door to door to get out the vote. At the University of Central Florida (UCF), they hand out campaign literature and speak to students at the student union, asking everyone in sight whether they had voted. When the answer is no, they follow with, “Are you registered to vote?” If that answer is yes, Frost responds with a variation of “Good!” or a body shimmy and a thumbs up. He explains to students who hadn’t voted yet that he's running to “reimagine public safety and focus on criminal justice reform,” as he tells one of them, who appears awestruck speaking to Frost. That student, Carlos, tells him he was disappointed that he couldn’t vote for him because he lived in neighboring Seminole County. Frost replies, very chill, “I’m still gonna represent you.”

That election night, shortly before Frost's win is announced — “It’s not even close,” one campaign staffer tells me early on — he works the room as a seasoned politician would, taking time to pose for selfies, lightly patting an elbow here, palming a shoulder there, handling the seismic moment with unflappable poise and self-awareness.

Waiting in the wings to deliver his victory speech, Frost tells me, “This whole thing feels really surreal. It's crazy to think that the same streets I was arrested on two years ago [during the George Floyd protests], I'm about to represent in Congress.” 

As he addresses his supporters, family, and friends, Frost takes in the accomplishment, dancing on stage, fired up, smiling big. He reminds them that his fight, their fight, “isn’t about Democrat versus Republican, left versus right. This is about the people versus the problem.” His riled-up crowd, wooing and clapping, chant back his campaign maxim, “The people versus the problem!”

“Patriotism is about loving your country,” Frost continues. “It's about loving the people in your country, no matter who they love, no matter where they came from. That's true patriotism.” 

As he steps off the stage, Lamar’s “Alright” blasts again. Frost raps along, feeling it, bumping to it, roaring: “Ayyeee! We gon' be alright, we gon' be alright, we gon' be alright! Ayyeee! We gon' be alright! Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon' be alright!”

Maxwell Frost wears an Acne jacket, Ralph Lauren sweater, Loro Piana pants, Alden loafers, and a Banana Republic belt.

Kendall Bessent

The road to history made began when Frost was 15. On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and killed 20 children and six adults. This was Frost’s undoing. He and some friends were out that Friday before their band’s jazz concert when “a silence fell across the entire restaurant,” Frost recalls, “we look around, confused, and we finally looked up at the television screens and saw it: Kids being walked out of elementary school, their hands in the air, with their little book bags.” At the band’s show that night, the trained jazz drummer was distracted and “kept looking at the exits thinking, If that happened here, where would I run?”

By himself, Frost hopped on a plane to Washington, DC, to attend a vigil for the shooting victims, where a call to action awakened. Sitting around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool with Sandy Hook survivors and the brother of Vicki Soto, a teacher who was killed that December day, pulled at Frost's heart even more, cementing his crusade for activism. “[Vicki] hid her class in the closet to save their lives, and she was murdered,” he says. “I remember just looking at Matthew, watching him talk about his sister and cry. I mean, seeing a 16-year-old with the demeanor of a 60-year-old changed my life forever.” 

Frost was adopted at birth by Patrick Frost, a white musician, and Maritza Argibay Frost, a Cuban special education teacher. Their oldest child and only son has been precocious and driven since he was a toddler, Patrick tells me, so Frost telling them he’d be traveling to DC alone after Sandy Hook didn’t surprise the family. “To know Max, you would know that whatever he's gonna do,” his dad says, “he's gonna do it.” 

On election night, while chatting with the Frost family — Patrick, Maritza, and Maxwell's sister Maria Elizabeth — they insist that he became interested in politics years before Sandy Hook. Asked if they could pinpoint an inciting moment, they all laugh and turn to each other. Patrick simply says, “Barack Obama.” 

In 2008, during President-elect Obama’s victory speech, Patrick remembers his 11-year-old son staring at the TV screen and saying, “There’s a man that looks like me.” They each tell stories of watching young Maxwell continue to study the 44th president. “​​Usually you see these teenagers, you know, they have their computer on, they have a show on, or they have cartoons on,” Maritza says. “But Max, you would go in his room as he's getting ready to go to school, he's got an Obama speech going on. He was learning, learning, learning.” 

Throughout high school, Frost remained engaged. He competed in and won speech competitions, became class president, and door-knocked to raise funds for the many organizations and local campaigns he started — including a successful effort to get the Salsa band he founded to perform at Obama’s 2012 inauguration. Later, Frost worked for Move On and the American Civil Liberties Union, before becoming the first national organizing director of March for Our Lives. 

Maria agrees that Obama was a significant inspiration, but she also attributes her brother’s political rise to his savvy and likability. “He's just the neighborhood college kid who's trying to finish his degree,” she says, “and trying to make a difference in his community.” (Frost dropped out of Valencia College before his senior year to focus on activism; he tells me he plans to finish in the near future. During his campaign, he drove an Uber five nights a week to pay bills.) Maria remembers how diplomatic and solution-oriented he’s always been, too. When they had the usual sibling squabbles, for example, their mother would put them in a room and say, “I’m not going to open the door until you guys talk about it.”  It was always Frost who’d break the tension and reason: “'What is the middle ground? I’m upset. She’s upset. How can I mend this?”' Maria recalls. And they always figured it out.

Frost reaffirms Barack Obama’s powerful influence on his life: “Sitting on the carpet in my living room [that 2008 night], the way I felt after he spoke, I said, ‘Wow, I want to make people feel the way I feel right now.’ I feel represented.” 

Maxwell Frost wears a Loro Piana suit, Bianca Saunders turtleneck, Paul Smith socks, G.H. Bass loafers and his own pin.

Kendall Bessent

Since that moment, there have been others too. In Senator Bernie Sanders, Frost began to see the type of progressive values he wanted to mirror: “He really opened my mind up to wealth inequality and what it means to have the courage to ask for more and dare to dream of a better world.” It was Maryland representative Jamie Raskin who showed him that he could lead with passion and vulnerability. Raskin governed with “emotional fortitude with what he's been through in his family [losing their son by suicide in 2020]," Frost tells me, "and still serving our country and working to protect our democracy.”

High-ranking Democratic officials, including Sanders, Raskin, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have high praise for the fresh-faced congressman. “As a community organizer, he understands that working people need leaders in Congress who will stand up to powerful special interests,” Sanders says. “He has inspired many young people to vote and brings to Congress the voice of a generation of young people who will be greatly impacted by the decisions we make — or fail to make.” 

Raskin praises Frost’s candid critiques on American democracy’s shortcomings, calling him “precisely the kind of young person we need in politics to confront the challenges of our time.” Likewise, Warren says she sees in Frost an advocate and empath because he “fights from the heart” and understands the problems “confronting Americans crushed by student debt, horrified by gun violence, and denied many of the same opportunities of previous generations.”

However, the Obamas, Sanders, Raskins, and Warrens of the world don't compare with the lessons and legacy Frost’s abuela, Zenaida Argibay, left behind for her grandson. An immigrant who fled Cuba in the 1960s, Argibay stood up against the discrimination and racism Frost faced growing up. Weeks after he won in the primaries, his abuela died. Still devastated by the loss, it comforts Frost to know that she got to see her “congresista” — what she called him; it means congressman — decisively win the primaries. “She taught me a lot,” Frost says of his yeya — what he called her; he says it's a Spanish nickname for grandma. “When she came to this country, she had multiple jobs making pretty much no money, exploiting herself so my mom and aunt could have a better life." 

“My grandma didn't get to achieve or live the American dream, but she lived her own [American] dream. I wonder what her dream would have been if money wasn't a concern. What would her dream have been if she had actually been supported by this country?”

Patrick Frost grows visibly shaken and teary as he remembers Zenaida, explaining the challenges of raising his Afro-Cuban son as a white man coming from a family of farmers who “grew up in a culture of racism.” He recalls the first time 14-year-old Frost asked why a white security guard had followed him around a Sports Authority store for so long. Patrick was caught off guard but told his son, “He was watching you because he thought you were gonna steal something.” Frost replied that he didn’t understand why the guard would think he'd steal something. 

Patrick struggled to find an answer to satisfy his son because, "I didn’t have that experience as a kid. If I grew up never having a son of mixed race, I would not have had this experience, and I would be just as blind as the people who have not had this experience. I never felt that growing up in middle-class, white privilege… but Max taught us just through being himself.”

Throughout his adolescence and into adulthood, Patrick and Maritza were open to Frost reaching out to his birth mother. He never wanted to, until he was steeped in activism and saw firsthand how the world’s cruelties can shape a person's decisions. 

Before he launched his campaign, Frost found his mother via Facebook. When they spoke on the phone for the first time, they wept. He thanked her for “giving me up because I had such a great childhood. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my parents.” They talked about how she had been battered by poverty, lacked health care, and wrestled with substance use disorder (Frost was born with drug withdrawal symptoms). When she had Frost, she already had seven children, and, on the phone that day, she told Frost, “I had you at the most vulnerable point in my life,’” he recalls. “There's a Dr. Cornel West quote — it's kind of my motto — that says, ‘You gotta see the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable.’ [So], hearing her say that was a spiritual thing, to be honest. I hung up the phone and said, I'm gonna run for Congress.”

Maxwell Frost wears his own Communications Workers of America jacket and own T-shirt, Alex Mill pants, Uniqlo socks, Paraboot shoes, and a TBC belt.

Kendall Bessent

Frost is keenly aware that people associate youth with inexperience. But, he says, his youth and uniquely American experience make him the right representation at this time. “Experienced,” old-school politics got this country to a point where the leading cause of death for children in America is guns; where active-shooter drills are now the norm for preschoolers; where books on inclusivity and diversity are banned. In this climate, a voice like Frost’s is a welcome reprieve. 

In the 117th Congress, members of the House of Representatives were 68% white, with an average age of 58. “We have a typical caricature of what a candidate for Congress looks like,” Frost says. “Maybe it's, like, a lawyer, maybe you've been in office for a while. But I think we need more regular, working-class people running for office, running with that experience, able to bring that to the table. We don't have enough of it right now. So I've always been kind of challenging that idea, like, 'What's the experience you're looking for?'”

Curtis Valentine, the Progressive Policy Institute’s director of Reinventing America's Schools Project and founder of the nonprofit Real Men Teach, calls Frost “the Obama of his generation.” Valentine says that Frost's candidacy and historic win are more than symbolic; they are “revolutionary,” because they disrupt the stereotype of “young men of color as disillusioned with politicians and distrustful in government…Frost can bring the community-organizer style of passing laws that millennials hoped Barack Obama would champion.” 

As he enters the 118th Congress, his legislative priorities include universal background checks, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, and pushing for a bill to financially support independent artists: “I just want to work to have a world where people can be involved in the arts and not go bankrupt.”

Frost, who calls his home state ground zero for the climate crisis in mainland America, is also desperate to fight for tangible action to address this clear and present danger. “The cost of not doing anything,” he says, “is far greater than the cost of taking the bold action.”

Maxwell Frost wears a Brooks Brothers jacket, Alex Mill pants, Uniqlo socks socks, Paraboot shoes, a TBC belt, and his own T-shirt.

Kendall Bessent

As Frost builds up his offices in DC and Orlando, he wants a team “that feels like home” and reflects America and his constituents. He’s looking for an intergenerational mix of insiders with know-how balanced by Gen Z’ers who are ready to present bold ideas and perspectives. The team’s primary goal? Continuing to build a base of people-centric power. “He really pays attention to the people, not the polls,” says Sergio Cartagena, a 24-year-old campaign staffer.

Ella Bisson, who couldn’t vote for Frost during the primaries because she was still 17, but turned 18 days before the general election, tells me Frost’s policies most attracted her to join his campaign as a volunteer. On Election Day, Bisson knocked on more than 600 doors. She felt a change coming, one she was eager to be a part of, one that Frost had proven to her was possible. Bisson even wrote her college essay about Frost and his campaign. “He's influenced me to want to run for office one day,” she says. “Like, seeing that he did it, it's insane.”

Another campaign volunteer, 17-year-old asylum seeker Keten Abebe, is strikingly somber as she explains why she stumped for Frost. In 2018, her first year in America, after fleeing Ethiopia for Nigeria before arriving in Florida, an active-shooter drill greeted her at school. “I just remember being so confused as to why people were hiding under the desks and why the classroom was dark — like, why is this so normalized?” she says. “Then seeing Maxwell speak at a March for Our Lives rally, that was kind of a catalyst for me to be like, even though I can't make a change on the polls, I can affect people who do go to the polls.”

People like Cartagena, Bisson, and Abebe, dubbed “generation lockdown” — young, tired of same-ole, same-ole politics, hungry for new perspectives and strategies — have propelled Frost’s ascent. He acknowledges this, often reiterating during our chats that his victory, their victory, is just the beginning. Senator Warren certainly hopes so, saying, “Frost’s election reflects a real urgency for transformational change, and it will inspire more young people to get involved in our democracy.”

“This is a movement,” Frost declares, “and we have to bring a lot of people along with us. So my mind is already thinking about how we do that, you know? How do we bring everybody together?”

Maxwell Frost wears a Bode shirt, Todd Snyder pants, New Balance sneakers, and a Mianai ring.

Kendall Bessent

Close to 4 p.m. on Election Day, Frost takes his first break at the UCF student union. While eating a Qdoba quesadilla (he’s a pescatarian; six years ago, a friend showed him a doc about the inhumane treatment of animals, and he felt compelled to stop eating meat), intermittently dipping tortilla chips in some tasty queso (he offers, I say yes), we talk about how many people have anointed him “the” voice of his generation. But Frost is adamant about not being the definitive voice of Gen Z: “Maybe in the halls of Congress, I'll be the lone member," he says, "but we all have a role to play.” 

Frost likens politics to a team sport, where he’s one of many who equally, distinctively, and collectively represent the greater possibilities for America. “We're a whole generation — we're all representatives,” he says. “Our artists, our influencers in culture, our teachers, you know, anyone who's Gen Z that's in a position of power in any industry, I think is a representative — and we all learn from the decisions we make.”

A passionate musician, Frost describes his approach to governing as “bridging the gap between cool and consciousness” — or, as Rep. Raskin calls it, “a delightful sense of humor about politics and himself. He is not judgmental or censorious and exudes a sense of joy and playfulness.” At lunch that election Tuesday, Frost schools me on some of his favorite bands. We also discuss his schedule for the rest of that week, which includes a post-win celebration at The 1975 concert in DC, with his sister and his girlfriend of almost four years. The band is his all-time favorite. We vibe a bit to one of their songs, “Happiness.” Before I can pull it up on iTunes, Frost is quick to tell me, “Play the dance-floor edit version,” a chill yet vibrant melodic number.

Later that week, Frost attended orientation for the House Progressive Caucus and another for all incoming members of the 118th Congress. Then, after Thanksgiving, there was a class held at Harvard for new members that felt “like school,” Frost says. “It’s a crash course in how to be a congressperson kind of thing, talking about the issues.” 

Finally, there’s a policy retreat in Pennsylvania after the swearing in in January. Between all of this, Frost has been attending social events with other members, including dinner at the Library of Congress, which he sees as work too because “you're meeting people, you're making connections, you're building relationships with your colleagues.” 

Frost has also received a flood of letters from people, young and old, praising him and proclaiming, “You’re gonna save us!” He’s flattered, but thinks this is an idea our country needs to shake. “I’m not a savior,” he says. “There’s not one person, not one elected official, not one politician that's going to save us all. It's gonna take all of us banding together, building power, doing what we need to do.” 

He associates this idea of the lone-savior politician with celebrity culture. “It’s very real in politics,” he tells me. “We want to find that one person who's gonna just change everything — our system is built that way. It's part of the reason why there's so much voter apathy.” 

Voters have long bought into the old ways of politicking where candidates say, Elect me and I will take you to the promised land. “When nothing changes, people are like, ‘Guess my vote doesn't matter,’” Frost says. So he’s committed to continue being transparent with his constituents, not to lower their expectations, but to tell it like it is: “I'm not gonna promise a bill is gonna pass next year — I'm one out of 435 votes. But what I can promise is what I'm going to fight for, how hard I'm going to fight for it, how I'm going to interact with the community, and the way I'm going to be a member of Congress.” That signature real talk has been Frost's secret sauce, the key ingredient that has transformed the unexpected into hope fulfilled.

Credits

Photo

Photographer: Kendall Bessent

Photo Assistant 1: Daniel Bostrom

Photo Assistant 2: Karla M. Jimenez 

Retouching: Jinx Studios 

Stylist: Ansley Morgan 

Production Assistant: Sarah Beckler Tice 

Production Assistant: Nehemiah Tice

Art Director: Emily Zirimis

Visual Editor: Louisiana Mei Gelpi 

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Assistant Fashion Editor: Tascha Berkowitz

Editorial

Editor in Chief: Versha Sharma

Politics Director: Allegra Kirkland

Audience Development Director: Chantal Waldholz

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