Orlando Congressman-elect Maxwell Frost, 25, knows tough road ahead in GOP-led House

Incoming U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost has suddenly become one of the most prominent members of his generation. But like many other 25-year-olds, he’s still looking for a place to crash.

“I’m just kind of couch-surfing a bit with friends,” Frost, D-Fla., said of his time in Washington, D.C. “Then hopefully in February or March I’ll be getting a place to live after I get some actual paychecks.”

Frost made national headlines following his Democratic primary win in August as the overwhelming favorite to become the first member of Gen Z in Congress.

Now he’s officially a congressman-elect, having defeated Republican Calvin Wimbish by 20 points in Orange County’s District 10 on Nov. 8. Frost’s last few weeks have been a whirlwind of orientation meetings, news media interviews and encounters with some of the biggest names in politics.

As he prepares to take office in January, Frost has to balance his newfound fame with his status as one of the least senior members of the minority party in Congress.

“Frost is in a unique position, in that unlike most freshmen members of Congress, he’ll be able to grab the national stage when he wants to,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Pinellas County and co-founder of the Forward Party.

“Patience is going to be his greatest challenge,” Jolly added. “(For) anyone who has been that successful that early, it can be a heavy experience getting elected to Congress. You discover this new confidence, and patience is in short supply.”

Learning the ropes

Just like in college, new Congress members undergo hours of freshman orientation. But theirs is capped off with a private midnight tour of the Capitol.

“We’re learning about our budget, how to set up our office, the logistical things that you need to know,” Frost said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel on Monday. “ … And then there’s a lot of social events that go until 11, which are just as important as the classes because that’s where you’re getting to really make good relationships with your colleagues.”

But in a more partisan world, a wide gulf exists between Frost, fellow Democratic freshman Jared Moskowitz of South Florida, and their incoming GOP colleagues.

Republican Cory Mills, another congressional freshman elected to Frost’s neighboring district in Seminole and Volusia counties, is an Army veteran and defense contractor who boasted in ads about selling police the tear gas used on Black Lives Matter protesters. Frost, meanwhile, was one of those protesters.

“We shook hands and swapped numbers,” Frost said of Mills. “And obviously, we disagree on a ton of stuff. I think a lot of the rhetoric he uses is very dangerous. And I’ll always be upfront about that. But at the end of the day, we can always come together and figure out [what] we can work on together that’s good for Central Florida.

“There’s a healthy balance, and it’s up to us to really figure out what that is,” he said. “If we just throw our hands in the air and give up and never talk to each other, then we’ll never achieve that balance.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who was elected in her 20s to the Florida Legislature, knows what it’s like to be in the minority party.

“You have to build relationships across generations, and whenever possible across the aisle to get things done, but never lose sight of your values,” Eskamani said. “And I do think there’s always going to be people that underestimate you as a young person and as just a new person.”

The most important thing, she said, is “don’t forget where you come from, and really ground yourself in your community and the values you were elected to hold.”

Frost was already making sure he had a presence in Central Florida, saying his first order of business was to get his district office up and running as soon as possible.

“For a lot of freshmen members, it takes weeks to get their doors open and get the operation moving, which is very normal,” Frost said, adding his goal is to do better than that.

Frost, the first Afro-Cuban elected to the House, has joined the Congressional Progressive, Black and Hispanic caucuses, but he didn’t know yet which committees he would be placed on.

For the next two years at least, he’s realistic about what Democrats can accomplish as Republicans take control of the chamber. He wants to push for things he thinks Republicans can also support, such as arts and culture funding and community violence intervention.

“But Republicans are already saying what they’re going to focus on,” he said. “And it’s Hunter Biden, [the president’s son]. ... I hope we can work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that’s going to help people. But when their claim to fame is Hunter Biden, I’m not sure that’s going to really happen.”

Reaching Gen Z

Frost, the former national organizing director for the gun reform group March for Our Lives, was optimistic about one day being there when major legislation such as a renewed assault weapons ban could be passed.

Frost’s real power will be his ability to use his fame to get his message across to his generation, new to politics but already flexing their muscles in helping Democrats hold off a red wave this year.

“Maxwell’s not even sworn in yet, but he’s already fighting for gun safety issues already, and helping to ignite more young people in the political process,” Eskamani said.

Frost, who shared on Twitter last week a shout-out to him from the band Paramore at a Florida concert, said pop culture “is a huge thruway to Gen Z and young people. It’s such a big part of their life. It’s what they see on their phones. And I think we have to bridge that gap between our government and what’s cool.”

He also wanted to make voting for young people “less of an extracurricular. You should vote, it’s important, it’s what we do. And I don’t think we’re there just yet.”

Florida ‘worth fighting for’

One of his most important conversations, however, was with an octogenarian.

“I got a 202 number,” Frost recalled. “And something I’ve learned is you just answer the Washington numbers after election night. You don’t know who it’s going to be. So I answered and they said, ‘Please hold for the president,’ and I started freaking out.”

One thing he wanted to get across to President Joe Biden and the country, he said, was that Democrats should not write off Florida.

“I’m a little worried that a lot of the institutional donors are going to pull out of our state, and that will make it worse,” he said. “So I’m making sure that in every room I’m in, I’m pushing that this state is worth fighting for. And it’s not too far gone. … They elected a 25-year-old organizer to the United States Congress, I feel like you shouldn’t give up on a state that does that.”

One national donor, however, has caused headaches for Democrats. The now-disgraced CEO of crypto firm FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founded an organization that spent millions of dollars boosting Frost, Moskowitz and other Democrats in the primary.

Frost said there was nothing he could do about the $1 million spent on his behalf by Bankman-Fried’s group Protect Our Future because it was an independent expenditure.

But he said his campaign was donating to charities the $2,900 that Bankman-Fried directly gave his campaign.

Building power

Biden, too, was elected to federal office in his 20s, and has risen to the pinnacle of power in Washington. Just like Biden, Frost can become one of the most senior members of his party in Congress just by continuing to serve and outlasting everyone. If he wants to, that is.

“Congress rewards seniority,” said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “So if you stick around for a while, learn the ropes and keep fighting for the ideas you believe in, then over time, you certainly can have an impact and actually gain power.”

But Frost was circumspect about the prospect.

“I don’t plan too far ahead,” Frost said. “So if I wake up in two years, four years, and I feel like going for this specific thing is the best way I can help people, then I’ll do it. But I don’t know what that looks like just yet.”

In the meantime, Jolly had one more piece of advice for the new congressman about how to spend long hours working out of his office on Capitol Hill.

“Get a comfortable couch,” he said.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.