© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Gen Z Is Furious With Biden Over Gaza. For Maxwell Frost, It’s Complicated.

The 27-year-old lawmaker is caught between the president and his progressive activist roots.

Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla
Rep. Maxwell Frost has emphasized the role of young Americans in elections. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP

Joe Biden has an undeniable Gen Z problem. An increasing number of young voters now see him as “genocide Joe,” horrified by Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza killing 28,000 Palestinians, which has been documented live on TikTok and Instagram. Almost three-quarters of young voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the conflict, polls show.

The first and only Gen Z member of Congress, Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida, is swinging in the middle, campaigning for Biden while trying to keep the peace with the young voters in the progressive movement he built his political career on.

Just two years ago, activist Lamia Moukaddam was featured in his campaign video, fist up on a pole in Orlando painted with the phrase “Free Palestine” (though most of the letters on the pole were cut out of the shot). In the same ad, Frost narrates: “I’m not a politician, I’m an organizer.”

In January, Moukaddam was pleading with Frost at a meet-and-greet event in Orlando. “You used to stand with us,” they said to the congressman, surrounded by two dozen, mostly white retirees at a suburban tea shop. “Why aren’t you standing 10 toes down on Palestine?”

With Frost’s reelection campaign underway, neither pro-Israel interest groups nor Palestinian human rights activists feel like he is fully on their side. He was the only Florida Democrat who voted against Speaker Mike Johnson’s stand-alone $17 billion funding package for Israel last week, but he hasn’t historically voted in line with the small group of progressives vocally critical of Israel. He isn’t being politically targeted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee like more outspoken progressives either.

Early in 2023, Frost took two votes in support of Israel — in April, reaffirming $38 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over a decade through 2028, and in July, on a resolution stating that Israel is not an apartheid state. In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, he was one of just 17 members to sign onto a cease-fire resolution in October, but later that week was among a small handful of those signatories who voted yes on a separate resolution also reaffirming U.S. support for Israel.

“Congressman Frost is wholly focused on navigating this difficult and sensitive issue by listening to his community and ensuring that every vote he takes is reflective of his diverse constituency,” Frost’s office wrote in an emailed statement to NOTUS.

That push and pull continues. In November, he voted against a resolution condemning support for Hamas on college campuses, saying he was “worried that this would open the door for Republicans to infringe on the free speech of students and young people,” but later said he wished he’d voted differently in response to backlash including from University of Central Florida’s Hillel chapter.

One month later, he voted yes on a resolution that equated anti-Zionism to antisemitism and then issued a statement disagreeing with that part of it. “Unfortunately a lot of these resolutions are such gotcha resolutions and BS that no matter what you do, there’s some sort of criticism coming your way,” Frost told NOTUS in December. Criticism did come his way for that vote.

When Moukaddam asked Frost directly about Gaza at the town hall in January, Frost responded abstractly at first, “The cries of all children, no matter who they are, Israeli, Palestinian, Parkland, Pulse, everybody sound the same.” The activists in the room weren’t having it.

As the back-and-forth continued, he spoke at length about his belief in a two-state solution, and called for “ending the occupation” — though the exchange was interrupted a few times by staff urging the congressman to move to another topic. Moukaddam later told NOTUS that Frost approached them both after the town hall to explain his positions further and again in the parking lot. NOTUS witnessed one of these private conversations. In private he was more personal, Moukaddam said, but the interaction was cut short.

“His team coming at me as though I approached him, or like I was being the aggressor toward him when it was a conversation with somebody that I know,” Moukaddam recounted. Frost was no longer a peer among activists — he was the staffed-up politician.

Maxwell Frost AP-23105829648694
Rep. Max Frost joined the progressive caucus in Congress. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP

Frost is a Biden surrogate, publicly defending the president to swaths of his own demographic. As polls show Biden hemorrhaging support among younger voters over his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza, Frost primarily focuses on gun violence and pitches Trump as a worse alternative — echoing one of Democrats’ main campaign messages.

Frost attended a Biden-Harris campaign roundtable on gun violence in Nevada ahead of primary voting, and defended Biden during a campaign press call Friday.

“I send a letter [about gun violence] to President Joe Biden, he’s going to read it, he’s gonna reach out to us, the White House is going to reach out, they’re going to work with us,” Frost told reporters. “If I sent a letter like that to President Trump or former President Trump, he’ll wipe his ass with it. And that’s really, those are the two choices we have.”

Frost said during the Orlando town hall in January that he is pressuring Biden on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza too. “We’re working to push the administration. We’ll continue to push to ensure that people stop dying, that children in Gaza stop dying.”

This pressure campaign has not been particularly public. Frost signed onto a letter urging the administration to do more to stop settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank in December, but has not directly publicly criticized Biden’s near-unwavering support for Israel like Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and others.

“Once you get through your first reelect, your second election, it does help you to feel more comfortable,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. “He’s just so talented and strategic and thoughtful, and I’m sure it’s very difficult in Florida, and just in general, for a brand-new member, first Gen Z member, I mean. He’s got a lot of responsibilities that he has to think about.”

In the weeks before his first primary in 2020, Sam Bankman-Fried’s super PAC invested $1 million in support of Frost’s campaign. The super PAC was also supporting a number of challengers to AIPAC-targeted progressives. Palestinian organizers in Orlando said they felt blindsided by the support and a concurrent position paper in which he backed providing military aid to Israel without conditions and denounced the BDS movement.

“There was definitely a shift, for someone who was willing to get arrested with us, marching with us, speaking with us, to then change the stance that he did literally days before the election,” Moukaddam told NOTUS.

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As Frost’s first reelection campaign approaches, other progressives who are publicly critical of Israel are again facing the threat of a primary challenger backed by AIPAC’s United Democracy Project super PAC’s $40 million war chest. “We have to acknowledge that AIPAC was successful in all but two of their races [in 2022], the message was clear — if you criticize [Benjamin] Netanyahu, you will be targeted,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a foreign policy forum last week.

Thus far, Frost has not been targeted by AIPAC or its affiliated super PACs. The more moderate pro-Israel group created to counter AIPAC’s influence, J Street, has not endorsed Frost, nor has the super PAC working to protect progressives targeted by AIPAC, Justice Democrats. Frost’s office declined to make the lawmaker available for a longer interview.

Orange County Democratic Chair Samuel Vilchez Santiago said he was not concerned about a primary challenger from Frost’s right this year. “One of his strengths is that he’s able to bring people together and he’s been able to appeal to both progressives and also moderates,” Santiago said.

But in Orlando, young progressives devastated by Israel’s assault on Gaza are disillusioned by that part of his appeal to moderates — particularly when it’s so closely aligned with a president whose calls for an end to violence in Gaza ring hollow to many on the progressive left.

“My family, we have a lot to fear. Like, if I say the wrong thing, is it gonna affect my family in Palestine?” Orlando-area Palestinian American Tamara Yousef told NOTUS. “I need people like him to speak in place for us.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify the nature of Sam Bankman-Fried’s super PAC’s support of Frost’s 2020 campaign.

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.