This is part of theHumanist.com’s monthly series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. Because of the work of the Center for Freethought Equality, the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association, there are over 100 elected officials at the local, state, and federal level who identify with the atheist and humanist community serving in thirty-two states across the country. Join the Center for Freethought Equality to help politically empower the atheist and humanist community—membership is FREE!
The Center for Freethought Equality’s advances have been groundbreaking. Prior to the 2016 election, there were only five state legislators and no members of Congress who publicly identified with our community; because of its efforts, today we have seventy-three state legislators and a member of Congress, Jared Huffman (CA-2), who publicly identify with our community. It is critical that our community connect and engage with the elected officials who represent our community and our values—you can see a list of these elected officials here.
Assemblymember Alex Lee
Representing California’s 24th District
“Being agnostic, not having any predisposition toward any religion, allows me to come to other religions with an open mind, which helps me represent my district. The common thread I see in the religious communities I visit in the district is a strong sense of collective community, taking care of one another. That resonates with me, and connects back to what I’m fighting for in the legislature—that everyone should have a home, and everyone should have a voice in our democracy.”
Assemblymember Alex Lee represents California’s 24th Assembly District, which includes Fremont, Newark, and Sunol in Alameda County as well as Milpitas and northern San Jose in Santa Clara County. First elected in 2020, Lee became the youngest Asian American legislator ever elected and the first openly bisexual state legislator in California history. He currently serves as Chair of the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.
In his first term in office, he was named “Legislator of the Year’’ by the Golden State Manufactured Home Owners League and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. He also received the “20 under 40” Leadership Award from The Council of State Governments.
Prior to serving in the legislature, Lee worked on statewide policy on public safety, climate change, and education for California State Senator Henry Stern and Assemblymember Evan Low. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Lee has called both San Jose and Milpitas his home for all his life. He is a graduate of Milpitas High School and the University of California, Davis, where he served as Student Body President.
Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?
Alex Lee: Before I was elected to the State Assembly, I was a staffer in the State Legislature. With that front-row seat, I was frustrated to see how our Democratic supermajority wasn’t living up to the values they proclaimed to stand for, and was failing to deliver on the kinds of issues Californians care about, particularly tackling the housing crisis.
In my own neighborhood, the average home price is $1.3-1.6 million, which is unaffordable for me, even as a state legislator. The lack of affordable housing is undermining the social fabric of our communities. People who are raised in this community can’t afford to live where they grew up. It’s impacting the dynamic of our community so badly, so I decided to step up and make the change myself. When I ran, no one thought I was going win, including myself! But here am I, having won two elections, and still standing.
Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?
Lee: My top two policy priorities are housing affordability and electoral reform. On housing affordability, I’ve introduced legislation around social housing, which is modeled from the successes of European and Asian countries like Austria and Singapore, whose policies treat housing as a human right. Their governments take a really active role in constructing, maintaining and providing housing for all their residents.
This is the case for both ends of the political spectrum, from the Viennese with their strong leftist tradition, to capitalist Singapore, which consistently ranks as number one or number two on the conservative Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom scale. On both ends of the political spectrum, they recognize how important it is to treat housing as a universal right. So I’m trying to bring this approach to California by utilizing our own state properties on state land to build mixed-income affordable housing for all, and taking an approach to the housing crisis that doesn’t put all of our eggs in the basket of for-profit development.
Around electoral reform, we need to rebalance power in our politics so that people, not corporations, have the power in our democracy. This takes the form of getting corporate money out of politics and publicly financed elections, which empowers individuals to help the candidates they want to see succeed.
As Chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, a big part of my job is holding polluters responsible for the pollution they create, and making sure that the historically marginalized communities most impacted by this issue aren’t the ones stuck with paying the consequence. For example, I’ve introduced a bill that will create an Environmental Justice Advisory Committee at the Department of Pesticide Regulation, which will empower marginalized communities—the people who have actually been inhaling and suffering most from pesticide use, especially in rural communities—to have a stronger say over the entity that is regulating pesticides.
I represent the most Asian-American district in the entire state of California, and I live in the most Asian-American congressional district (outside of Hawaii) in the nation. My district is 60% Asian American, which comes with it a lot of different cultures, heritages, and religions. On any given weekend, I could be going to a mosque, a Hindu temple, a church, a Confucian or Buddhist temple.
Personally, I’m agnostic. I don’t belong to an institutional religion, although I’m very open to the idea of something being out there. I don’t view any religion as superior to any other, and my district is reflective of that American, pluralistic idea where everyone can believe and practice what they want. Being agnostic, not having any predisposition toward any religion, allows me to come to other religions with an open mind. As a legislator, I learn a lot about different cultures and religions that I haven’t been exposed to before, which helps me represent my district.
The common thread I see in the religious communities I visit in the district is a strong sense of collective community, taking care of one another. That resonates with me, and connects back to what I’m fighting for in the legislature—that everyone should have a home, and everyone should have a voice in our democracy.
Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?
Lee: I think it’s important to be open about every aspect of being a representative. I’m also an openly queer legislator. I’m the first openly bisexual legislator elected in the state’s history. I’m young, Asian-American—and while all of those things are important to understand your representative as a human being, I don’t put my identity first like some other politicians. I’m not saying, “hey vote for me because I’m XYZ,” but I’m going to honest about who I am. Voters can interrogate where my views and philosophy come from, because I have this lens and I can’t change that. I think it’s important to be able to explain my view of pluralism, because my agnostic perspective is where that comes from. At the end of the day, voters want representatives that are real human beings.
Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?
Lee: I’ve never had a negative experience. But I will say, having been able to be open-minded about things, it gives me the ability to connect with my constituents. For example, a few years ago I heard an Imam talk about the importance of fasting during Ramadan. He said, “of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is the only pillar in which only you and the Creator know that you kept the faith,” whereas the other pillars are all external demonstrations of faith. Of course you could lie if you drank water or ate food during the fast, and only you would know. So it’s up to you as an individual to hold yourself accountable. I found that really striking. It resonated with me as a lesson about personal integrity.
Years later, I referenced what he said at another Muslim-American event during Ramadan, and connected it back to politics and democracy. I talked about how there are times when politicians can take the easy way out, take the path of least resistance, even when it’s not necessarily the moral or right path. At the end of the day, only you are judging yourself—maybe for some it’s the Creator judging you—but there’s at least one individual who will know whether you did the morally right thing, and that’s you.
I really do enjoy learning about other cultures and religions. I use what I learn to relate it back to our shared experiences together.
To learn more about Assemblymember Alex Lee: