Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is appointing Nicole Lee to be the next alderman of the city’s 11th Ward. Lee will become the first Asian American woman to sit on the City Council.
Lightfoot’s selection – which still needs approval from aldermen – comes from a list of 27 people who applied for the job. Lee will replace former alderman Patrick Daley Thompson, the nephew and grandson of former mayors Richard M. and Richard J. Daley. He resigned from the seat in February after being convicted of tax fraud.
“Nicole is living a life of purpose,” Lightfoot said, as she announced Lee at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport. “She’s lived a life that will resonate with many Chicagoans inside and outside of the 11th Ward when they come to know her story. …Nicole represents what is good and best about our great city and she has my admiration and my support.”
The City Council will hold a special meeting on Monday, March 28 to consider Lee’s appointment. If approved, she will serve out the rest of Daley Thompson’s term, which ends in May 2023.
Lee is currently the Director of Social Impact Optimization and Global Community Engagement at United Airlines. According to the Chicago Tribune, she also has ties to the Daley family. Her father, Gene Lee, a former chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Lee — dubbed the “mayor of Chinatown” — was also convicted by the feds in 2014 for stealing from charities.
When asked about those ties, Lightfoot said she would not have picked Lee if she didn’t have the “bonafides” to do the job and told reporters to focus on “her, her life, her experience” and not her father’s.
“I saw my father serve the public for 30 years, driving the streets, taking the long way home, checking the lights, making sure stuff is picked up, taking calls at all hours of the night,” Lee said in response to questions about her father. “That’s what he did and he was not an elected official.”
The 11th Ward, historically the stronghold of the Daley family political dynasty, is poised to become the city’s first Asian majority ward in Chicago. There are two dueling redistricting proposals headed for a referendum in June, but both create an Asian-majority 11th Ward that includes Bridgeport and Chinatown.
“The 11th Ward has long been a gateway for immigrants from around the world to build a new life in the greatest city in the world,” Lee said Thursday. “Most of these disparate people from most of these disparate cultures and ethnicities come to the 11th Ward to raise their families and communities that value love, integrity, grit and service.”
Lee said she lives in the same building her grandparents bought when they first came to Chicago that her parents also live in. She recounted growing up in Chinatown, but attending public school “on the other side of the viaduct” at Mark Sheridan Math & Science Academy in Bridgeport. She later attended Whitney Young Magnet High School, which opened in 1975 during desegregation and admitted students based on race until 2009.
“When I was there, I truly learned the value of inclusion,” Lee said of Whitney Young. “It was there that for the first time, I was often the only Asian American in the room. So going into City Council won’t really bother me so much. I’ve done this before.”
Lee was one of just two candidates Lightfoot sat down with after she got recommendations last week from a four-person committee she convened to help with the process.
Salvador Cicero, an attorney with The Cicero Law Group and Bridgeport resident, was on the committee and said Thursday the group looked for “governmental experience, community involvement, and leadership skills.”
“We held in-person interviews,” Cicero said. “We had lengthy conversations with each candidate. And at the end of that process, we made the recommendations to the mayor.”
The mayor said she also consulted with 11th Ward committeeman John P. Daley just after Daley Thompson resigned. It’s common for a ward’s committeeman and alderman to work closely together. In some cases, the same person holds both jobs, but John P. Daley is a Cook County Commissioner.
Not everyone in the 11th Ward was happy with how Lightfoot selected Lee to fill the vacancy. The 11th Ward Independent Political Organization said the process is “inherently undemocratic.” They said in a press release that their attempts to reach out to the mayor and her selection committee were ignored.
The organization said they have concerns that Lee’s professional background “is connected with banks and oil interests.” Lee has previously worked at Premier Bank and BP.
On Thursday, Lee did not say definitively if she plans to run for the seat in 2023. If she does, she will have at least one opponent. Ambria Taylor did not apply for the appointment and has also been critical of the appointment process being done “behind the backs of 11th ward residents.”
But others applauded the move.
State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, the first Asian American woman to represent the area in the Illinois legislature called Lee’s appointment “exciting and historic.”
“I look forward to working with her to serve our mutual constituents,” Mah wrote.
Catherine Amy Moy Davis, the principal of Haines Elementary School, said Lee is a gifted listener and communicator. Lee’s two sons attended Haines and Lee sat on the Local School Council, according to her resume posted by the city.
“As the first Asian American woman to serve on the City Council, Nicole will be a reminder to everyone that if you can see it, you can be it,” Moy Davis said. “I can’t wait for my students at Hanes to see themselves represented in the City Council and know that Nicole is advocating for them.