These Young, Queer Candidates of Color Are Changing Bay Area Politics

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Alex Lee (left), Lucy Shen (center), and James Coleman (right) all ran for local office positions during the 2020 elections. (Courtesy of Alex Lee, Lucy Shen, and James Coleman)

This is the first episode of By The People, The Bay podcast’s new series highlighting the way democracy shows up in the places around us, and how we can all plug in.

One way to change your hometown? Run for office.

That’s what Alex Lee, James Coleman, and Lucy Shen decided to do in the 2020 elections. All three are among a number of young, queer candidates of color who ran in local races this year.

They’re from different parts of the Bay Area – with unique relationships to their hometowns – but they all found themselves looking for change and diving into politics.

Coming Home and Breaking Barriers

A number of young, queer people of color are "winning seats in towns that have not necessarily seen that sort of representation before," says KQED Silicon Valley reporter Adhiti Bandlamudi. She's been tracking Lee, Coleman and Shen's progress, and notes that not only are all three of them Asian American, but they're running for office in Bay Area cities "where they are sort of making history by even running."

Lee, Coleman and Shen are fairly united in their politics as "young progressives that have really liberal-leaning policies," says Bandlamudi — running on platforms like housing affordability, demilitarizing the police and the removal of school resource officers. "These are all platforms that are new and different, that have not necessarily been the status quo in these areas."

Another unifying factor? All three candidates are all seeking office in their own hometowns — the places to which they've returned after varying degrees of time away.

All three candidates expressed having experienced some form of backlash over their identities, says Bandlamudi, but stress that it's been met by "how much support they received from their community, from people who are neighbors, who they grew up around, from their former teachers."

"They all talked about knocking on doors, talking to folks, and playing up the fact that they all grew up in the cities that they were running in," says Bandlamudi.

Meet Alex Lee, CA Assemblymember-elect, District 25

In November, 25-year-old Lee became the youngest state legislator in almost a century, running to represent the area encompassing Fremont, Santa Clara, San Jose, Milpitas and Newark. He's also now the first openly bisexual state legislator in California history.

"Despite being a legislative staffer for the state Assembly and being very intimately acquainted with the legislative process, or even the legislators themselves, I was in many regards an outsider," says Lee.

Self-describing as a gig worker himself, Lee says that understanding the struggles working class people can experience wasn't "this foreign concept where I have to tour somewhere, and have to talk to someone to understand the struggle. I understand it ... it's not something I have to learn secondhand."

Of being the first openly bisexual person in this role, Lee says that he thinks about it "a lot" — but that being first brings with it a degree of pressure, too.

"It's important to me as a young person, especially as a young, queer person of color, to do the job well so that we can uplift more young, queer people of color to office," he says.

Meet Lucy Shen, Candidate for Fremont Unified School Board's District 5 Seat

"I never really envisioned myself in politics," says Lucy Shen. "At most I saw myself as an organizer, or at least someone who supported organizers."

Yet Shen, who is non-binary, found themselves motivated to run for Fremont School Board Area 5 by the sheer lack of any other candidates they felt they could support – and the realization that "it would really make our organizers' job easier if we could have one of our own in an electoral position, because it could save their time and energy so that they can keep working on things that matter —  instead of having to turn people out to the most basic of discussions."

Shen was spurred into activism in 2018, by their desire to work to update the Fremont school system's health and sexual education system to reflect the experiences of queer people — a drive that Shen says was met with homophobic reactions from some in the community. After a spell on the east coast, where Shen attended Wellesley College, the COVID-19 crisis led them to return home to their parents' Bay Area home.

"I just I feel like I have a very deep understanding of this place," says Shen. "It means it's hard to leave, for sure." But of Fremont's conservative aspects, Shen says that "after the sex ed thing I think we realized ... how much homophobia was deeply rooted in our community, even if people don't recognize it or admit to it." They felt drawn once more to make a difference in the local education system, and ran for the District 5 seat.

Even thought that bid was ultimately unsuccessful, Shen hasn't ruled out another future run.

"I realized that this was an aspect where I could effect change in a meaningful way, and in a way that I could witness myself while working with the people that I loved and trusted the most, because these are the people that I grew up with who we were able to turn out."

This was "community building and also future building at the same time," says Shen.

Meet James Coleman, Councilmember-elect for South San Francisco's District 4

Listeners of The Bay podcast may already know the name of James Coleman. He's the 21-year-old who ran for city council in South San Francisco after the George Floyd protests this summer, campaigning on policing and affordable housing — and won.

His opponent, Rich Garbarino, had been in office since Coleman was a child.

"This was a campaign where many establishment figures doubted the potential — and especially since South San Francisco is a community that may be looked upon as generally apolitical, and not a really progressive community," says Coleman. "But we proved them wrong."

Adhiti Bandlamudi notes South San Francisco's mix of "a strong community of working class folks who have been there for a very, very long time" and groups that have moved in more recently to work in the biotech industry. She also observes how Coleman, who comes from a working class family and has been pursuing a degree in STEM, might be seen to bridge those two communities.

"What South City wants is action on climate change," says Coleman. "They want resources for child care and preschool. They want to be able to move out of their parents' homes and build their family in a house in South San Francisco."


"He feels like the city is facing a lot of crises," says Bandlamudi. "He feels that people are so fed up [with the status quo] that they were willing to take a chance on someone who they weren't familiar with, just to see some change."

Coleman says he was surprised at his win, but that he believes "this is a movement that has been a long time coming." He says he's also ready "to work with the other incumbents and really get things done, get things passed, solve some issues, you know – have a really spirited and intense debate."

"I want to be a collaborative force on the city council," he says.

Read the full episode transcript here