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Bridgeport, Chinatown, McKinley Park

Who Is Nicole Lee? 11th Ward Alderman Pick Has Background In Corporate Giving, Chinese-American Organizing And Oil Consulting

If confirmed, Nicole Lee would become the first Chinese-American alderman to serve in Chicago's City Council.

Nicole Lee.
The Daily Line & Twitter/Nicole Lee

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CHICAGO — Less than a day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she needed “more time” to settle on a pick to succeed convicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) in the City Council, she announced she had settled on United Airlines executive and Chinatown native Nicole Lee as her pick.

If confirmed by the full City Council in the coming weeks, Lee will replace Thompson after he was forced to resign from his City Council seat after he was convicted of tax fraud by a federal jury last month. She would become only the second-ever Asian American alderman to serve in the City Council, and the first-ever Chinese American alderman.

Related: With Daley Thompson ‘guilty’ verdict, clock begins ticking to appoint new 11th Ward alderman

“Nicole Lee has spent her life expanding and amplifying 11th ward issues and voices,” Lightfoot wrote in a statement late Thursday morning. “Her dedication to empowering communities and building coalitions is evident in her career and in her involvement in a variety of community organizations. She is the right choice to make sure 11th ward residents are fully represented on the Chicago City Council.” 

According to state law, Thompson became ineligible to hold public office the moment he was convicted on Feb. 14. His conviction set off a 60-day window for the City Council to confirm his replacement, nominated by the mayor. 

Lightfoot’s choice was first reported by the Tribune on Thursday.

The City Council Committee on Committees and Rules scheduled an in-person meeting for 12:30 p.m. Monday to take up the appointment. It will be immediately followed by a full vote in the City Council.

In her résumé, which was publicly posted by the mayor’s office alongside those of the 26 other applicants, Lee described herself as an “Asian American leader born and raised in Chinatown.”

A graduate of Indiana University with a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, Lee has worked at United as its “director of social impact optimization and community engagement” since 2008. The role entails managing the company’s “global portfolio of nonprofit partnerships” and its “social impact strategy,” including its charitable giving.

The bio of Lee’s personal Twitter account reads “Workin’ Mama. Wannabe Bad Ass. Professional do-gooder. Chicago Girl.”

Her account shows that she has overseen a recent partnership between United and chef José Andrés’ charitable group World Central Kitchen involving South Loop mainstay Manny’s Deli. She is also an acquaintance of Chicago-based political consultant David Axelrod.

Prior to joining United, Lee spent a decade in the consulting and financial industries, working as a development officer for Premier Bank from 2004 to 2007. She previously spent three years working as an “internal consultant” for the oil company BP America. She also worked during the same period as an independent consultant performing work for multiple different groups, including the Chinese Mutual Aid Association.

Lee described herself in her résumé as “seeking to expand and amplify Asian American issues and voices by empowering communities and building coalitions for a better Chinatown and Bridgeport and a more equitable Chicago.”

Lightfoot has faced mounting pressure to appoint an Asian American candidate to fill the 11th Ward seat to better represent a the rapidly growing Asian American population on the city’s Near South Side. And the 11th Ward is set to become the city’s first majority-Asian American ward under both ward map proposals lined up for consideration on a June referendum ballot.

Related: Asian American leaders prep legal, political push for City Council representation in next remap

Lightfoot acknowledged in a news conference last month that “there’s a lot of interest in picking someone who’s Asian,” but she stopped short of making any commitments, saying she is “going to pick someone who I believe is going to serve that community the best.”

Lee is fluent in Cantonese, according to her résumé. She has served on the University of Illinois at Chicago Asian American Advisory Council since 2017 and served as president of the Chicago chapter of the group Organization of Chinese Americans from 2003-10.

The announcement was celebrated by other Chicago-area Asian American elected leaders on Thursday.

“It is exciting and historic that the Mayor has appointed the first Alderman from the Chinese American community,” Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago), who represents Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods in the Illinois House of Representatives, wrote in a news release from the state’s Asian American Caucus. “I know Nicole, and I am confident that she has the right skillset to represent all 11th Ward residents well in the City Council,”

Lee’s father, Gene Lee, was at one point a high-level aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and was convicted in 2014 on an embezzlement charge unrelated to his previous public role, the Tribune reported.

Lightfoot had committed last month to choosing a new alderman in time for them to be sworn in during Wednesday’s City Council meeting, but the mayor signaled on Monday that she needed more time to make her pick, and Wednesday’s meeting proceeded with only 49 sitting aldermen.

Related: Lightfoot pushes through special City Council committee to vet plans for future Chicago casino as some aldermen cry foul

Members of the City Council Committee on Committees and Rules had been scheduled during a Tuesday meeting to give initial approval to the new alderman, but that meeting was quietly canceled Tuesday morning.

Lightfoot said during a Wednesday news conference that she would “be making an announcement shortly” on her appointment.

Lightfoot declined to say why there was a delay in her appointment of a new 11th Ward alderman or when her nomination will be heard in the rules committee. “When we’re ready, we’ll announce it and then we’ll take the appropriate action to make sure that we present the candidate before the rules committee and then before the City Council,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor also declined to comment on which of the 27 applicants were included on the short-list of names sent to her by an appointed selection committee.

The City Council is not scheduled to meet again until April 27, so aldermen will likely need to convene a special council meeting to confirm Lee by the legal deadline. Neither a rules committee meeting nor a special City Council meeting have been scheduled to confirm Lightfoot’s appointment, the City Clerk’s website shows.