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History In The Making: Nicole Lee is Chicago’s First Chinese-American Alderperson

Mayor Lori Lightfoot selected Lee to replace convicted former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson to represent the 11th Ward, which includes Bridgeport and part of Chinatown. Her appointment was unanimously approved Monday.

Chinatown native Nicole Lee is Mayor Lori Lightfoot's pick to be the next 11th Ward alderperson.
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CHICAGO – History was made Monday as Chicago’s first Chinese-American alderperson was confirmed to City Council.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s appointment of Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) to replace former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson was approved unanimously during a special City Council meeting. Daley Thompson was forced to resign after being convicted of income tax fraud and lying to federal regulators.

Lee is just the second Asian American to serve on City Council, following former Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), and the first Asian American woman.

Lee’s nomination received unanimous backing from her new colleagues as they rolled out the “red carpet” for her, offering their help. Some joked that Monday would be her last happy day on the City Council floor and warned that the job is an often thankless one. 

Lee has served as the director of social impact and community engagement at United Airlines since 2008, according to her resume posted online by the Mayor’s Office. The Indiana University graduate also holds a master of public policy from University of Chicago and has served on several civic boards and charitable organizations, including a stint on the local school council at Haines Elementary School from 2017-2021.

Lee has deep roots in Chinatown, saying last week she and her two sons “represent the fourth generation of Lees” to live in the same building in the neighborhood her grandparents purchased. 

“I will be the first ever woman and Chinese American to serve as the 11th Ward alderman,” Lee said to cheers at an introductory press conference last week in Bridgeport. “I cannot be more proud to represent the people that came before me, the communities that raised me and the neighborhoods that my boys are growing up in today.”

While not divulging her political views, Lee told alderpeople her “top priority” would be delivering essential constituent services to 11th Ward residents while staying focused on community safety, but has thus far not weighed in on where she stands on political issues facing the city.

Prompted by a question from Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), Lee said she’ll serve all of the 11th Ward residents.

“While it’s not lost on me, this particular moment in history,  I’ve been nominated to represent the residents of the 11th ward, and they are not all Asian American,” Lee said Monday. “I am here to represent the interests of every single person of the 11th ward regardless of whether or not they eat rice at night for dinner.” 

“You’re going to add significance, and an important voice, and representative voice, to this discussion on City Council,” said Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd). “Bringing your perspective to this body is very important.”

“This Council doesn’t agree on a lot of things, but there’s probably one thing that 49 of us would agree upon and that’s any of us will be available to you for a phone call,” said Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th).

After the 45-0 vote, Lee gave a brief speech before her new “esteemed colleagues,” saying getting into politics was “never a career aspiration for me,” but she always felt an urge to serve her community. 

“ I know that I’m in exactly the right place at the right time of history to be a part of this body, to help lead this great city as well as represent every single member of the 11th ward.

Lee was then escorted to her new seat in the back of the chamber.

Lightfoot selected Lee from a pool of 27 applicants that included other members of the Asian American community and several candidates with a law enforcement background. Lightfoot said last week a search committee winnowed the field down to two finalists whom the mayor personally interviewed.

Grace Chan McKibben, one of the three members of the search committee established by Lightfoot, told Block Club last week Lee was selected, in part, because the committee believed her experience would allow a quick learning curve to providing essential ward services.

Lightfoot said after the meeting she has “confidence her appointment will pave the way” for a “more equitable and inclusive Chicago.”

“I think what you’ll find when you get to know her is somebody of great compassion, great commitment and service, a very good sense of humor, but somebody who just wants to do good,” she said.

Lee evaded a question last week on whether she will seek election in 2023 to remain in the post, saying she was focused on the appointment vote Monday and quickly staffing up the 11th Ward office.

Lee’s father served as a top aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, before later being convicted in 2014 of stealing more than $90,000 from charitable organizations he led serving the Chinatown neighborhood.

If Lee runs for election next year she could face a crowded field, including Chicago Public Schools teacher and democratic socialist Ambria Taylor, who has already launched a campaign and did not seek an appointment to the post.

Under each of the two competing ward map proposals put forward by alderpeople, the 11th Ward would see its boundaries shift to create Chicago’s first Asian American ward, centered on the Chinatown neighborhood.

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