There’s something allegorical about a particular portrait in Rep Maxwell Frost’s office. The landscape, created by The Highwaymen, a collective of Black painters native to his home state of Florida, depicts a palm tree beneath a sky the color of gunmetal. Bent toward the moonlight, keeping watch of an unruly tide and abandoned sands, it stands alone.
The 26-year-old freshman congressman from Orlando is certainly basking in the kind of glow one would expect from being “the new AOC.” And given he’s also the youngest lawmaker on The Hill, loneliness is inevitable. But on the day I followed Mr Frost, there was a longtime ally at his side: artist and activist Manuel Oliver.
In a matter of hours, President Biden will deliver the State of the Union address. Mr Frost’s office is a furor of preparation. There are interviews to give, meetings to take, and a schedule to keep, but Mr Oliver – Frost’s guest for the event – sits unperturbed on a couch. He rests his palm against another piece of art; a mural that nearly spans the length of an entire wall. Oliver knows it well, and not because it’s already made an appearance in innumerable profiles of Frost. He created it in memory of his son, Joaquin, who at just 17-years-old, was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Spray-painted on the sheet are two portraits, one of Joaquin and the other of Mr Frost. They’re flanked by a warning: “It’s time to save some lives, so get on board or get out of our way.”
A cynical person might say that sentiment seems impossible. During his speech later that night, President Biden would tout his passage of the Safer Communities Act as the most sweeping gun safety law in three decades. Yet, less than two months into 2023, more than 60 mass shootings have occurred in the United States, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. The pain in communities like Parkland, Uvalde, Colorado Springs, and Monterey Park remains. And, somehow, Mr Frost is not a cynical person.
“Now, Joaquin is inside the building,” Oliver remarks, eyes trained on his son’s likeness. Mr Frost enthusiastically confirms, looking on.
I was introduced to Mr Frost , quite simply, as Max, a sort of wunderkind organizer back in 2020. We were members of Senator Bernie Sanders’ advance team, charged with coordinating events during his second campaign for president. Though we didn’t often cross paths given the breadth of the operation, I remember calm-in-chaos as being part of a Frost production. That much remains.
Following Mr Frost for back-to-back interviews in the Capitol rotunda, he appears at ease referring to the “uniquely American” issue of gun violence in all of its manifestations–from school shooting to police misconduct. He calls his Republican colleagues, “out of touch,” and “disgraceful.” At every opportunity, he introduces Mr Oliver, who hasn’t exactly been a stranger to these halls since losing his son.
“I made a promise to Manny that when I got elected he’d be my guest tonight,” Frost repeats, milling from camera setup to camera setup like one of the species of hummingbirds that call Florida home. If it’s a tedious process for Frost, it doesn’t seem like it. To The Independent’s Eric Garcia, he remarked that he’s trying to nab an aisle seat so he can slip away to the bathroom unnoticed during the State of the Union. Then, it’s off to a Science, Space and Technology committee meeting where I’m not permitted.
“I told Bill Nelson (a NASA administrator and former U.S. Senator) I want to go on a space shuttle,” he confides on the brisk walk there. Really? “No, really.” He’s late, but that doesn’t stop him from posing for a few photos and giving a quick comment to a local television station.
When he returns to his office, we discuss what he thinks of the State of the Union, a second term for President Biden, and his own ambitions. I’m distracted by more items of note strewn about his private office. Leaning against an aging armoire, rests a calendar of photos of his beloved grandmother eating and a print of a resplendent Stevie Wonder, one of his musical heroes. Hanging on the adjacent wall is a second landscape by The Highwaymen. This one depicts a bird amongst lush foliage. Again, it stands alone. Records–J. Cole, Logic, and the 1975–are scattered on a coffee table, while a turntable spins in the corner.
Typically, I’d wonder if these displays are for my benefit–if you’ve ever stepped foot in any lawmaker’s office on Capitol Hill, you know such flourishes are deftly-curated reflections of their humanity. But Mr Frost’s resume — from festival production to political organizing — reflects a demonstrable affinity for the ways in which art is inherently political dating back almost a decade.
He wants to reinvigorate the relationship between “cool and conscious,” he tells me. How so? A concert series on The Hill. Demystifying the disconnect between the political system and young people disenfranchised by it is a priority, and what better way to do so than invite them into government spaces for events they’d actually want to attend headlined by outspoken artists.
Hypothetically, I ask who he wants to be the first? “Phoebe Bridgers,” he said. If it sounds unlikely, a similar event is already in production for this October in Mr Frost’s district, though he doesn’t disclose further details. And besides, he’s already received onstage shout-outs from the likes of the 1975 and Paramore–two of his favorites.
Listening to Mr Frost, it’s tough to imagine someone like him as a participant in political traditions like the State of the Union. I’d imagine it might feel like sitting through something akin to a high school assembly or midweek meeting.
He begs to differ: “I think it’s a really good opportunity for people to hear directly from our country’s leader about his hopes and dreams, and what he believes the country’s hopes and dreams are as he’s setting out his agenda.”
“And it makes for some great drinking games,” he adds. In previous years, having a tipple in someone’s apartment to watch the speech is precisely what he did. Does he miss it?
“I’m sure there’s a small part of me that does, but I love what I do,” he insists. “I’ve always had a ton of crazy ideas, and now I’m in a position where I can actually do a lot of them.”
One of those “crazy ideas” is working with President Biden’s administration on banning assault weapons, a matter he said he hoped the president would address at-length that night. The following day, Mr Frost noted that President Biden’s comments on gun control were heartening, yet left much to be desired. Mr Oliver, too, was unsatisfied.
“We didn’t hear the specifics that we wanted for the plan,” he told me via phone call. “Manny told me afterwards, ‘That’s great, but like, I’ve heard that.’”
“I know the president cares about this issue, but we need action,” Mr Frost continued. “Now we have to push for action and the executive action that we want the president–and need–the president to take so we can save lives, because putting it to Congress is a futile effort for these next two years. I mean, you can just go to any House Oversight hearing and have that confirmed for yourself.”
It’s this reality that’s shown to leave many young voters disillusioned not only with Democrats, but the political system in its entirety. Mr Frost empathizes.
“As a progressive, there are policies that I want my president to try with executive action, and if it gets struck down, you try something else,” he says. “With every issue, whether it’s protecting bodily autonomy and abortion rights, or gun violence…you just keep trying. Part of the reason I wanted to bring Manny is that he’s not afraid to call out the president and the administration, and say, ‘there are things you can do right now to end gun violence and I want to see that done,’ and I say the same things that he does.’”
Mr Frost has spoken about his own experience with gun violence in the past — describing an incident in which he ran away from gunfire in downtown Orlando.
When the anniversary of his son’s death arrived last year, Mr Oliver was arrested after scaling a crane outside of the White House with a banner that read: “45K People Died On Your Watch!”
“It’s true, there’s many young folks who are disillusioned with the system, and I think the way we pull them along for the ride is by passing legislation that actually impacts your life,” Mr Frost continued. When asked whether he’d like to see a second term for President Biden: “I always say, that’s up to him.”
As it turns out, Mr Frost didn’t get his aisle seat, but as a series of selfies would show, he scored a place amongst whom he calls, “his friends.” Among them are fellow progressives like Reps Ilhan Omar, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and our former boss, Sen Sanders. Such allies are to be expected, Mr Frost says he has more in common with less-suspecting colleagues than he might’ve thought.
“I feel like when you’re on the outside and you’re looking in, you’re like, ‘they’re all corporate hacks’ and there’s a small group of really good people. Then you get in here and like…I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how many of my colleagues are actually progressive in their values, but their goals are a little smaller than maybe my goals are,” he said.
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Considering that Mr Frost faces tough territory in a Ron DeSantis-backed Florida, substantive goals are crucial. Right now, a measure that would allow people to carry guns sans state permits and gun-safety training is moving through the statehouse. More and more school districts and libraries are being forced to take “controversial” books out of their curriculum and off the shelves under the Stop Woke Act, legislation that bans in-school discussions about racism, oppression, LBGTQ+ issues and economic inequity. Institutions like the Orlando Philharmonic and the New College of Florida, too, have fallen to the predation of the governor’s culture-wars.
“I’ll be honest, there’s a void of a centralized movement against the fascism we’re seeing in Florida,” Mr Frost says, recalling his most recent stay in the state. “I got really deep in thought this past Saturday, and I just started calling everyone across the state, like, ‘what’s going on? what’s an effort I could join?’ And there wasn’t a lot, to be honest. People are pretty beat down, there’s no money…there’s just a ton of different things at play. So, something that my team and I are working on is trying to figure out how we can help fill that void and be a voice of leadership in the state.”
He continues: “We want to ring the alarm bell for the country because I feel like the problem is, most people think about Florida and they go, ‘it’s f**ked up, but it’s DeSantis. And because of that, it’s hard for any one thing to cut through. He’s in a position where he can make the battlefield, he can use executive action to do what he wants, and if it gets struck down as unconstitutional, he’ll try something else. And it’s really, really bad.”
Before he’s swept to another meeting, I ask a question I’ve yet to see him answer: Whether he’d donated the money he received from 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire and con artist, Sam Bankman-Fried during his campaign. He’d promised to do so on Twitter after Mr Bankman-Fried’s arrest, citing the Orlando-based Zebra Coalition, a network of organisations that provide a range of social services to LGTBTQ+ youth.
“Yeah, we did.”
The Independent contacted Zebra Coalition for further confirmation and did not hear back.
While we await his return, I walk with Mr Oliver through the Longworth building. In the back pockets of his jeans, are bundles of what appears to be yellow handkerchiefs. They’re penalty flags he intends to hand out to lawmakers who voted “no” on the Safer Communities Act, he explains. Mr Oliver wants to give one to Rep George Santos, one of many Republicans who’ve been donning AR-15 pins on their lapels. As we approached the door to his office, a handful of downcast reporters camped in the hallway outside perked up.
Mr Oliver then got denied by an exasperated aid; the door shut in his face. He’s used to that. Miraculously, though, a few moments pass and the aid reappears to invite him to speak with Mr Santos himself. He’s ushered in, sans press.
A little over a minute later, Mr Oliver re-enters the hallway: “Well, that was weird.”
Mr Santos, he said, accepted the flag, and expressed apologies for the loss of his son. He did not, however, tell Mr Oliver he’d stop wearing the pin.
We make our way back to Mr Frost’s office where staffers are now determining dinner orders.
“Anyone ever had Buca di Beppo?” one aid asks aloud. After several minutes of discussion, they decide pasta is probably best for the long night ahead. Orders are taken, and Mr Oliver asks about the notes I’ve been taking.
I express my surprise at how someone like him–one of countless parents who’ve lost their children to gun violence and willingly subject themselves to spaces wherein they’re faced with the lawmakers buttressed by the NRA and, who many would argue, have their loved ones’ blood on their hands–can still do what he does.
“How do you not feel like a pawn?” I ask.
“I do,” he answers plainly. “I don’t trust them,” referring to most lawmakers–Republican, and Democrat. His feelings don’t matter though, he explains. He keeps going for his son and for others who’ve lost someone. Does he trust Mr Frost?
“100%,” Mr Oliver said.