How can we take back our democracy?

This is part of our SOAPBOXFEST recap series! In August 2021, we hosted the world's first virtual fest on climate, community, and comedy. One of our headliners was CAΒ assemblymember Alex Lee!

I'm the first openly bisexual state legislator. I'm also the first Gen Z state legislator, and the youngest Asian American state legislator in California history at 26 years old.

I represent District 25, which includes Santa Clara, Northern San Jose, Milpitas, Fremont, and Newark. As you know, The Bay Area is the heart of the economic engine of California. In fact, the new census data is just coming out and it's shown that there is a major increase in Asian population in the entire state of California β€” we've jumped 3%, which is quite a bit, and I actually represent one of two Asian-majority districts in the entire state of California. I'm really proud to be part of the community and represent it.

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"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter."Β - Meghan Mehta, Google
  1. ‍What is the state assembly or the state legislature?

    California basically has their own version of Congress. We make the laws from everything from education to roads to climate change. We can do everything that Congress can do except declare war and decide on immigration.


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  2. Why did you run and how did you win, especially given your age and other identity intersections that we don't usually see represented?

    I worked for the state assembly previously and I was a legislative policy advisor for several legislators. I got very frustrated with the fact that in California, even though we have a democratic ultra supermajority and control all the executive offices, we do not do a lot of the great progressive things that we talk about. This is fundamentally very frustrating, especially as someone from the Bay Area. So I ran to change those things.

    I'm very proud to say that I won my campaign without taking any corporate contributions, fossil fuel money, or cop money.

    The reason I one despite my age and odds stacked against me is that it all comes down to hard work β€” we literally knocked on 30,000 doors. For a district of half a million people, it's not actually enough, but it's a lot. We went to every small event possible and really pitched it. I had no fancy title to my name β€” what happens when a lot of politicians run is they have fancy titles to their name already, but that wasn't me. I grew up in the district, had relevant experience, and wanted to do the job well. I hit the ground running because I have the job experience, and I think our constituents have really valued that.

    Of course, there's skepticism when people see my face (they think I'm a high schooler or even younger still, thanks to my great youthful genes 😜), but once people hear my ideas and passion, it gets through to them. That's the reality for people who come from marginalized backgrounds, whether you're a person of color, you are queer, you're not a man, where you have to work 1000 times as hard just to prove you're equal. I's a great travesty of our society, but it is a truth but it at least, in a way, that you're guaranteed more-hard working representation from your representatives of color.


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  3. Can you tell us more about the relationship between money and political power?

    Imagine your acquaintance that you don't know super well gives you $20. You're probably nicer to them than the acquaintance that gives you $0, right? It's the same human psychological effect, magnified up to 10s of thousands of dollars. You might not love them, you might not know them that well, but you might support them.

    That's why on the day I was sworn in, I introduced the Assembly Bill 20 to ban corporate contributions. You might have predictably guessed the bill didn't go as far as it should have but it was important to get the conversation started.

    We're going to grow that movement and make sure that we are having more of a democracy that works with people and not just for the ultra-wealthy select few.


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  4. How does your identity play a part in the issues you advocate for?

    A lot of people like to say having representation matters, but sometimes it's hard to concretely imagine what that means. So I'd like to illustrate how the various intersections of my identity have actually played a part, using the example of the first series of vaccine rollouts in California.

    It was very geared towards people who had a car, understood English, and are tech-savvy. It was very much like "go on this app and you'll read the instructions and you'll show up at this place". That's how our Governor's administration really pushed out the vaccine rollout.

    And you can already predictably see who it excludes. We saw β€” and the data confirmed β€” it was people who were higher income who have higher mobility (because they own cars), and more English speaking. We also saw it by race β€” which people and which zip codes got vaccines first.

    It's the same pattern β€” people who have resources get more resources. And we were seeing how a lot of communities of color, seniors, people who don't speak English, people who don't have cars (who are also more likely to be service workers and essential workers) were not getting the vaccine.

    Then there was this narrative that started asking why people of color are more vaccine-hesitant, but that's not true. When you don't have marginalized peoples' needs in the foreground, you have these weird afterthoughts and after-actions when you could have very clearly seen that it was a problem of outreach and understanding, not hesitancy.

    When we started these programs back up with more multi-lingual information, more community sites, the vaccine rate went back up perfectly. That's why it's so important to have people with our backgrounds in office, so we're not an afterthought; we're the first thought.

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  5. What issues are important to you? How are you making it happen and how can we join those efforts as non-politicians?

    I would say the top two issues are 1) returning democracy to the people and 2) making sure everyone has a home. That is my ultimate goal in politics. It's not just reducing the efforts of big money in politics or making sure people can afford a home β€” it's just literally to have those be guaranteed. That should be the goal.


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  6. Tell us more about returning democracy to the people.

    For elections, we have to ban corporations and special interests from donating money; we have to undo Citizens United which essentially allowed special interest groups to just spend unlimited amounts of money at every level. It really unleashed a whole unorthodox era politics and that's why you're constantly spammed with ads and everything. It really made politics all about money instead of voters.

    To an extent I think that's why one our democracy is gone so awry and I also think that's why my opponents lost. Because if you get so caught up in money, ahead of voters, then you start losing sight of democracy altogether.

    We're also going to hopefully, in the next couple years, make a lot of progress in having publicly funded elections, so that can reduce the influence of outside special interests. This would empower everyday individuals to also give to campaigns, essentially voting with their wallet. We know not everyone can write $1,000 checks on their own, but if you were given an allowance, you could amplify any candidate you like. When I'm knocking on doors, for example, I could say use your "Democracy Dollars" to help me out! We're seeing this in some cities already and it's gaining traction as an idea.


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  7. What about housing?

    It's not affordable for many people to live in the Bay Area. We're moving towards a society of haves and have-nots with people who have mansions on mansions, and others are paying $3,000 a month for a tiny space. That's not fair and it's not sustainable.

    You cannot discount how housing security builds a better economic security and every other thing because if you have a stable roof over your head, you already are set for a lot of things outcomes in your life.

    I hear too many stories in America, obviously, the problem is you have to choose between your rent or your medical emergency expenses, right, those are the two things that can bankrupt you and have you out in the street and it's really no fault of your own. That's really a shame of this country and something we have to fix.

    I'm also a co-author on our Medicare-for-all bill in California, so hopefully we'll get both those things passed β€” housing and healthcare for all.

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  8. Housing is an easier issue to get plugged into than taking back democracy, since it's more tangible. How do you suggest we get involved in the fight for restoring political power back to people?

    The very first step to getting involved is to exercise your freedom of expression and use it often. Really let your representatives know what you feel, and let them know often. I'll tell you why this is so important: there's only a select few folks who get very involved in their local politics: local, state, federal level, they always have their opinion heard, you can always know where they're at.

    But that's how democracy should work, right? I should know about what you think, just as much as the "frequent flyers", as they're known. I should know what your opinions are. When you feel empowered to say your opinion, you should join groups of people who are like-minded and will get those things done, advocate, because I can guarantee you, whatever it is you're passionate about, that there's a group of people in your hometown that have all said the same thing. It's about mutual organizing.

    My friend said, "You motivated me to write my first angry email to my city council", so start with that! Write your first angry email to someone and see what happens! As a resident of your city, state, whatever, it is YOUR right. You have the right to tell us your opinions. Because we work for you β€” don't forget that. We work for you.

    No matter what people do to try making you feel disempowered, you should always let us know your opinion.


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  9. What's the best way to let politicians know our opinion?

    It depends on the avenue you are speaking to. If you think about it, if you send 10 angry tweets to your city council member, it's probably more effective than for your member of Congress. On the state assembly level, I see most of my apps and tags. Volume is also important β€” it can't be a one-off where you put all your eggs in one basket.

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  10. What is the most effective channel to get that through to our first Gen Z assembly member?

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    I use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, I don't use to TikTok as much anymore because it's addicting, but email is the best. If people write to my office, I luckily have staff who will make sure your messages are filtered.

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  11. When people donate to politicians, what exactly happens with that money, and do you do fundraising yourself?

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    I do fundraising myself. I think most politicians probably do? Congress spends SO much time fundraising; it's actually absurd, but I'll tell you what generally happens and what I do, which is very different.

    Generally what happens is a lot of money goes back to pay professionals. Your treasury people, your fundraisers, your campaign consultants, etc. β€” a ton of people that make this kind of "electoral industrial complex" work.

    If you're ever interested in electoral work, on a paid basis, there is a whole industry that exists because in America campaign season is perpetual, essentially. Β So there is a whole apparatus in which people pay for this stuff.

    On top of that they spend on ads on the things you get in the mail, things to persuade you, and it's basically a giant marketing campaign. And then there's also times they use it for donations to civic groups who can support them.

    My motto has always been about maximizing every dollar to reach voters, since we don't take corporate money and we're grassroots. In my primary campaign, our votes-to dollar ratio (basically like how many dollars it takes to get one vote if I divided all the money I spent by all the votes I got) was 40 cents per vote. Which was insane because my opponents are like $14 a vote for theirs.

    We also relied on a lot of volunteer help, so there's a lot of hidden costs. If you really paid everyone for the volunteer hours, that would be an enormous amount, but you cannot underestimate how impactful it is to have real people power. Β So we try to really maximize how we use our money to reach voters, which includes ads, walks, materials, and stuff like that.


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  12. What are you most excited about to work on? What makes you the most hopeful, especially given all the bad news of late?

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    You know, I'm hopeful that more and more people are understanding the dire need to act urgently.

    Whether it be on climate change (just look outside at the fires that obscure our own sun), or what's happening across the globe, everything that happens here in California affects everything that happens in the world and vice versa.

    And the more we understand that we can't just pitter-patter around the edges and nibble away at issues and just, you know, do the same thing we've been doing for decades and decades, gives me a lot of hope.

    I hear from my community that we need wholesale fixes on things, not just bandages. And I think in the coming years you'll see more and more people who believe in that and are committed to change, rather than just committed to careers.


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  13. Everything you described earlier on taking action β€” will this work for people who aren’t citizens or on nonimmigrant visas (study/work/dependent/etc.) but definitely interested in local politics?

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    Yeah, look, it matters. It matters a lot to me. Representative districts are drawn based on how many residents there are, not citizens. To me, it doesn't matter if they're voters, children, immigrants, on visas β€” it does not matter to me.

    I represent you one way or the other. As long as you live in my jurisdiction, it's my job to take care of you.

    Now, there are politicians whose ideology depends on excluding these people. Politicians that say, if you're not a voter, I don't care. If you're an immigrant, I especially don't care. There are people like that. There are people who believe that. But I don't believe in excluding people.

    As long as you live in my district, whatever your immigration status is, no matter how old you are, even if you're didn't vote for me, and you have a complete different ideology, to me, it's still important to me to make sure you, at the end of the day, have a safe roof over your head and you're not going to breathe in dirty air. That's important to me. I hope most representatives will have that viewpoint too.


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  14. What was your favorite class at UC Davis?

    Introduction to Acquaculture. I didn't get to take the tractor driving class, but I got to learn about how fish farming works!

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You can donate to Alex Lee here and contact him on any social media, but the best way to reach him is via email here. He's @alex_lee on Twitter and Instagram.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

πŸ’Œ Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Take action
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter."Β - Meghan Mehta, Google