Maxwell Frost, Gen Z's First Member of Congress, on Breaking Barriers, Couch Surfing — and M3GAN

Maxwell Frost in the Capitol
Maxwell Frost in the Capitol

Cheriss May Maxwell Frost

Maxwell Alejandro Frost was just 24 when he declared his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives, putting his all into the campaign — and in turn, risking his livelihood — with trust that by the time the Democratic primary rolled around one year later, voters would know his name and believe in his mission.

"I didn't want to run and lose," he tells PEOPLE, keenly aware of the financial hardship and daunting time commitment that would come with upending his life for a campaign. "I wasn't about to run just to make a point."

At the time — this is 2021 — Frost was working as the national organizer at March for Our Lives, a youth-led organization founded in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting that aims to put an end to gun violence. A Florida native and survivor of gun violence himself, he was bound to the mission (in fact, he first engaged in the issue much earlier, when his 15-year-old self was shaken by news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and convinced to be part of the solution).

Through organizing both in his local Orlando community and around the country, Frost caught the attention of fellow activists. When it became clear that his district's representative, prominent Democrat Val Demings, would not be seeking reelection, calls grew for Frost to vie for her seat.

Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., speaks during a rally outside the U.S. Capitol to call on the Senate to vote on an assault weapons ban on Wednesday, November 16, 2022.
Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., speaks during a rally outside the U.S. Capitol to call on the Senate to vote on an assault weapons ban on Wednesday, November 16, 2022.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

"There were organizers that had casually brought up [running for a House seat] at the beginning of the year and I said, 'Hell no,' and moved on," Frost recalls. "There were times where I'd said, 'Yeah. Maybe I'll run for office one day.' But I had never really identified Congress specifically."

But the idea of running stuck with him, and talking to trusted confidants, he decided to consider the proposal more seriously. "I checked into all the s---," he says. "And part of that was carefully assessing, 'Can I win?'" When victory looked plausible, he decided to go for it. "I didn't have a ton of support at the beginning, but I had enough."

RELATED: From Uber Driver to House Frontrunner, Maxwell Frost Is Committed to Giving Gen Z a Seat at the Table

The process of becoming an elected official is expensive, particularly when you're a working-class 20-something who lacks a savings account and isn't propped up by generational wealth. Forced to quit his full-time job and focus on the election, Frost racked up significant debt — even as he tried to supplement income by driving for Uber between campaign events.

During that time, Frost got priced out of the Orlando duplex he was renting with his girlfriend and younger sister. He used the little money he had left to rent an Airbnb for a month while he looked for a new place to live; by the end of the month, he still didn't have housing lined up, so he resorted to couch surfing, at one point crashing with his sister's ex-boyfriend.

"During this whole thing, I was like, 'Well, at least if I win, in a year, I won't have to worry about it,'" he remembers.

Maxwell Frost rollout
Maxwell Frost rollout

Cheriss May

RELATED: Maxwell Alejandro Frost Elected as First Gen Z Member of Congress

Frost was 25 when he beat nine older challengers, including two former U.S. Representatives, in the Democratic primary; defeated a retired Army colonel in the general election; and took the oath of office, becoming the first Gen Z member of Congress.

He was the same age when he learned that even after becoming Congressman Frost, the financial strain wasn't over. He was denied an apartment in Washington, D.C. because of his damaged credit score, forced to again crash with a friend until he can find a more permanent situation.

"I think back to the Max that said, 'Oh you don't have to worry about it.' I'm still worrying about it," he says. He's grateful to know that, because his campaign was successful, he will soon find some relief in the form of government paychecks — and he recognizes he's privileged to have a light at the end of the tunnel, unlike so many Americans. "But I also bring it up, because the entry point to a position of power is really important ... It determines who gets there. It acts as a filter."

RELATED: Gen Z Rep.-Elect Maxwell Frost Was Denied a D.C. Apartment: 'Ran Up a Lot of Debt Running for Congress'

Maxwell Frost rollout
Maxwell Frost rollout

Cheriss May

Newly 26, Frost is now getting to work in the Capitol as he awaits his committee assignments (he hopes to get on either the House Judiciary Committee or Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but will gladly accept whatever he's assigned).

He sees his purpose in Congress first and foremost as representing his constituents on the Hill, but also ensuring that he uses his life experiences to spark more dynamic conversations in Washington. He's wary of being painted as the voice of Gen Z in Washington, seeing his age as just one piece of the perspective he brings to the halls of power.

"It's important to have people with different perspectives in Congress — working-class people, younger people, et cetera — because when we sit down at a table and we're discussing these issues ... you want that table to be representative of all the different plights, struggles, experiences, cultures, loves and fears that our country has," he says.

Maxwell Frost rollout
Maxwell Frost rollout

Cheriss May

For more on Maxwell Frost's historic road to Congress, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

New to lawmaking, Frost still managed to enter Congress as something of a celebrity, in large part thanks to his refreshingly personable energy.

On social media, he dances with constituents and incorporates youthful slang into policy debates. As a jazz drummer and avid concert goer, he is enmeshed in numerous musical fandoms — most notably that of The 1975, who dedicated a song to him at a recent D.C. performance. And Frost's shameless belief that the meme-worthy horror-comedy film M3GAN is deserving of a Best Picture win at the Oscars hints at his willingness to take a bold stance, no matter the issue.

"Spreading joy is my mission," he says. "I think people should find joy in this work, and I think people should have the resources they need to find joy in their lives."