Alex Lee, the young Assemblyman from District 25 whose first term’s been unfolding against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic, has been using his every spare moment (of which there are few) to campaign for re-election in 2022…
The Beat caught up with Lee by phone on Monday. He referred to himself as “constantly moving,” citing the presence of a “perpetual election machine” amid his role in office. His campaign officially kicked off last June, and has had him making campaign stops while governing full-time. Among his challengers will be Kansen Chu, who occupied Lee’s District 25 seat for 3 straight terms before entering 2020’s Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors race, where he was defeated in a landslide victory by Otto Lee.
On December 7, he’ll have served for one year. Says Lee, “We’ve done a lot of work during the pandemic year of 2021.” He calls it “no small feat” to be representing over half a million Californians while COVID-19’s been raging. “We’re also in the midst right now of redistricting,” he explains, “so that could change which cities I represent.” (We’ll find out how the map looks no later than December 27.) Public office, Lee says, is “definitely a roller coaster.”
Like with any roller coaster, there are highs to match the lows: Lee cites the high vaccination rate in Santa Clara County (which is at 90.3% among county residents over age 12 as of this writing) as an “an amazing, incredible thing we’ve been able to do.”
He also points to the 7 bills of his he’s seen passed out of the state legislature during his time in office, 5 of which have been signed into law:
There was AB 1061, which Lee describes as a “mobile home park resident bill” (saying with a laugh that the phrase “rolls off the tongue”); it protects mobile home residents from unfair and arbitrary water service fees, something that applies to the mobile home communities in Milpitas.
There was also AB 1228, which alters the criminal justice system so as not to excessively presume guilt on the part of those who’ve violated the terms of their probation. In a system, Lee explains, where citizens are innocent until proven guilty, violating probation can yield them guilty until proven innocent, calling for a more nuanced approach to such violations so as to not egregiously penalize violators for minor errors.
In addition, Lee drafted AB 898, which ensures greater accuracy of criminal court records as they are transferred from one court to another. And AB 1337, which has particular applicability to Milpitas and Berryessa, whereby BART police have an expanded security tool kit to deal with folks who might present safety problems.
The roller coaster has its lows. To Lee’s disappointment, AB 339 didn’t make it past Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. The bill’s objective was to allow larger California communities’ public meetings to continue allowing remote attendance post-pandemic, enabling attendees to keep participating from their homes or other remote locations. “The governor,” Lee explains, “did have an executive order that made it possible…”
But in the course of vetoing the bill, Newsom wrote, “AB 339 limits flexibility and increases costs for the affected local jurisdictions trying to manage their meetings. Additionally, this bill requires in-person participation during a declared state of emergency unless there is a law prohibiting in-person meetings in those situations. This could put the health and safety of the public and employees at risk depending on the nature of the declared emergency.”
Lee powers on. He points to over 2,200 cases, the vast majority of them under the purview of the Employment Development Department (EDD), in which he was able to help fulfill citizens’ unemployment needs: “We helped a lot of people through our very antiquated unemployment system…I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it saved their lives.”
He’s also been active on the budget committee, as of when his service started last December. At the time, people were anticipating a recession and an austerity budget, but in the wake of those concerns came a surplus. This has helped Lee and his colleagues to devote $156.5 million to addressing rising hate incidents, namely those against Asian-Americans. Says Lee, “It’s never happened before; we’ve never been able to get funds dedicated to communities like this.” The money’s being put toward battling hate crimes outright, while also educating those who might be fearful of the unknown and thus inclined to perpetuate hateful stereotypes.
On a grander scale, $123.9 billion has been put toward education, the highest such amount in state history. “Granted,” says Lee, “it’s still not enough” — in light of the educational needs faced by Californians. But as of now, massive monies are being funneled toward those in Pre-K, K-12, and colleges/universities. And Lee takes pride in having personally fought for approximately $200 million from the $124 billion to put toward Career Technical Education (CTE).
With his sights set on his second term, Lee’s not losing sight of the shelved AB 20, which would have “banned all candidates in California from getting corporate donations directly.” Lee explains that congressional and even presidential candidates cannot receive such donations, at least not blatantly (as in without PACs), but California candidates at every level of government can. An early measure of his, though AB 20 didn’t pass, he says it’s gained traction within the Democratic Party, where already debate had been underway about candidates taking donations from oil and gas companies (another form of corporate money). Lee’s proud that his bill has helped to shape the conversation.
In the meantime, he’s out to close a loophole in the Ellis Act, disallowing California landlords from circumventing tenant protections to carry out evictions. And he’s pleased to have played a role in returning students to in-person learning amid pandemic conditions, softening the idea of mandated in-school instruction in favor of a more incentive-based approach. He’s also impassioned about instituting social housing — “mixed-income, sustainable, union-built housing neighborhoods that are going to be publicly owned, publicly developed, and publicly maintained” — so as to create opportunities for local residents, namely those in Milpitas, to live affordably. Lee cites social housing as being among his top priorities, calling it a “new tool for local jurisdictions to accomplish their affordable housing needs.”
As we spoke, the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting a curve, with the new Omicron variant fresh on people’s minds. Lee points to the development as “just more evidence that we need to be vigilant, we need to get vaccinated, we need to stay masked, we can’t take anything for granted, we can’t throw big Spring Break Florida parties anytime soon…This might be the new reality for a while.”
“I don’t think it’s over,” he adds, referring to the pandemic in general, “but I do think in many ways some of the worst aspects of it are over.” He refers to how last year we didn’t have vaccines, and even thought that packages delivered to our doorsteps might come bearing viral particles.
Ever a progressive, Lee looks forward. He points to the “transformative effect” of government, stating that no matter where one stands in terms of politics, one can no longer deny, in the current age, how much government stands to impact people’s lives.
Going forward, he seeks to make that impact positive: “I have the policy chops to do what I said I was going to do.”