By Eva Hofmann
Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced she selected Nicole Lee as the new alderwoman representing the 11th Ward, the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council.
A lifelong Chicagoan raised in Chinatown, Lee is the daughter of Gene Lee, who served as longtime deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Nicole Lee and her two sons are the fourth generation of Lees to live in the Chinatown building purchased by her grandparents.
“I am thrilled and honored to represent” the 11th Ward, Lee said. “I’m still getting up to speed on a lot of the ward issues and meeting the heads of City departments who are key to accessing important City services. I am asking for a little bit of grace as I get my arms around things so that I can provide more meaningful responses to the questions coming into my office.”
Community leaders have expressed appreciation for the mayor’s pick and approval of Lee’s qualifications. “We want to thank Mayor Lightfoot for making history with this incredible appointment and for advocating for our communities,” said Paul Poy, commissioner of the Chinatown Special Service Area. “Nicole Lee will be our champion and will serve this city with dignity and hope for the future.”
“We thank the Mayor for her speedy decision that included an open process that also valued community inputs,” said C.W. Chan, founder of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC). “We congratulate Nicole Lee and are confident that she will represent the Bridgeport/Chinatown community well with her neighborhood background and her proven administrative and human relations skills.”
A member of the University of Illinois Chicago Asian American Advisory Council, Lee has served as chair of the Haines Elementary School Council, president of the Chicago Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, and in a variety of leadership positions at other organizations. She is a graduate of Indiana University and has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago. Most recently, Lee worked for United Airlines as director of social impact optimization and community engagement.
“The Chinatown Chamber is excited about the appointment of Nicole Lee as the new alderman of the 11th Ward,” said Patrick McShane, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “Ms. Lee was one of three candidates recommended to fill the vacancy by the chamber along with a consortium of local community organizations. While there were many well qualified individuals within the group of 27 candidates, we felt the mayor and City Council chose the very best.”
According to McShane, Lee understands the needs of the entire 11th Ward. “She has been very active, both professionally and personally, in taking on leadership roles in many community support groups,” he said. “She exemplifies strong leadership and is capable of identifying and addressing the needs of the community.”
“Bridgeport Alliance is pursuing a productive working relationship with Alder Lee,” said Maxwell Fritz of Bridgeport Alliance. “The prior alder’s only open public forum in his last two years of service was a town hall that lasted two minutes. Having a new alder is an opportunity for positive change, but time will tell how much actually changes.
“Bridgeport Alliance wants community development to be community driven,” Fritz added. “We want more affordable housing to keep cost of living down and keep residents from getting squeezed out. And we want an alder who is closely connected with the ward’s community groups and will be their representative at city council.”
McKinley Park Development Council President John Belcik said, “We at the MPDC are glad that there is increased representation on city council and are excited to get the chance to work with the new alderwoman. Her community involvement and deep Chicago roots speak volumes about how invested in this city and her neighborhood she is. We hope that her desire for community growth and empowerment will continue and be a benefit to the residents of McKinley Park, a neighborhood typically looked over by the 11th Ward.
“The MPDC also looks forward to our future conversations with Alderwoman Lee about the areas east of Ashland Avenue occupied by the 11th Ward, where input from McKinley Park residents is not often sought. Working together with increased community input can strengthen all communities and shape future growth and opportunities,” Belcik said.
IPO raises questions
The 11th Ward Independent Political Organization (IPO) is not quite as happy about Lightfoot’s naming Lee as alderwoman, according to executive committee member Phan Le.
“We are cautiously optimistic about Ms. Lee’s appointment,” said Le. “While we have spoken up against the appointment process for being undemocratic and clandestine, the people of the 11th Ward have to live with the mayor’s choice and figure out how to work with our new alderperson.
“To be clear, the bar for the 11th Ward alderperson is low,” Le added “Our most recent representatives to City Council have largely subordinated themselves to the will of the mayor and abdicated their responsibilities as legislators; machine corruption casts a long shadow in this community.”
Lee replaces Patrick Daley Thompson as 11th Ward alderman, who resigned from his City Council seat following a February 14 tax fraud conviction.
McShane cited “the safety of all those who live, work, and visit our community” as the ward’s primary issue. Other matters requiring the alderwoman’s attention, according to McShane, are “education improvements, the promotion of a vibrant business community and addressing senior housing needs within the community.”
Le expressed 11th Ward residents’ concerns about the neighborhood’s lack of upkeep, citing crumbling sidewalks, lack of tree maintenance, and inadequate snow removal. “Despite whatever projects the previous alderman completed, many felt he neglected the ward in service to his own personal priorities,” said Le. “In terms of ward services, Ms. Lee should champion a community-driven approach for allotting the office’s menu money.”
‘Represent all residents’
Dennis Moderno of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association (CMAA) was more optimistic.
“I love Nicole Lee being named alderwoman of the 11th Ward,” Moderno said. “I have known her for over 20 years, and she’s witty, really intelligent, a great listener (not everyone is), devoted to Chicago, and has for years been genuinely involved in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. We both served together on the board of directors for the CMAA, and she brought a thoughtful, mature voice to all board meetings.”
For more information or to reach the Mayor’s office, call 311 or (312) 744-5000 or go to www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/mayor.html.