Lightfoot’s pick to replace Patrick Daley Thompson would be 1st Asian American woman to serve on City Council
Nicole Lee is the daughter of Gene Lee, a longtime deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago’s longest-serving mayor. The Chicago City Council is scheduled to ratify Nicole Lee’s selection at a special meeting Monday.
An emotional Mayor Lori Lightfoot made political history on Thursday by appointing the first Asian American woman ever to serve on the City Council.
Nicole Lee will replace convicted former 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson.
“I feel excited, but also nervous because this is such an important moment,” Lightfoot told reporters as she introduced Lee.
When the mayor called and asked her to replace Thompson, Lee said, it was “exhilarating and scary.”
“I’m a little bit crazy and I think you have to be, to put yourself in this position. To put myself before all of you. To subject my family to some public scrutiny in all of this,” she told reporters at the Zhou B Arts Center, 1029 W. 35th St.
“I believe it’s all well worth it because, if we don’t have leaders that are willing to step up and do the hard jobs, we shouldn’t complain about what’s going on in government.”
Lee is a United Airlines executive whose father was a longtime deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago’s longest-serving mayor and Thompson’s uncle. She and her two sons are the “fourth generation of Lees” to live in the Chinatown building purchased by Nicole Lee’s grandparents.
In 2014, Gene Lee pleaded guilty to embezzlement and tax fraud after admitting to stealing thousands of dollars from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in 2007 and 2008.
Thompson resigned in February after being convicted by a federal court jury of lying to regulators and five counts of filing false income tax returns.
During Thursday’s celebratory news conference to announce her historic appointment, Lee was asked about her father’s political history with the Daley family.
Lightfoot stepped forward to, as she put it, “set the tone.” The mayor seemed determined to prevent the line of questioning from veering into Gene Lee’s conviction.
“I hope in asking her that, in asking the question, you’re not asking her to say anything other than, ‘I love you, Dad. I love you, Mom.’ She loves her kids, her brother and her family,” the mayor said.
“This is about her. Her life. Her experience. And how she’s gonna do in leading this ward in this challenging time. So I hope the question is specific to her and not about anything else.”
Lightfoot was asked whether she has any concerns about how the “Daley connection” might play with voters and with City Council members who will be asked to ratify her appointment at a special meeting on Monday.
“None whatsoever. Nicole’s her own person. That’s how her parents raised her. She stands on her own two feet. … She’s gonna be the one who gets the calls to fill the potholes, the garbage collected, make sure the snow’s being shoveled,” the mayor said.
“Nobody props you up when you step forward as an elected official. You’ve got to stand on your own two feet. Nicole is well-grounded and ready to take on the challenge.”
For her part, Lee talked about how hard and how tirelessly her dad worked and how much she learned from him about public service.
“I saw my father serve the public for 30 years, driving the streets, taking the long way home, checking the lights, making sure stuff was picked up, taking calls at all hours of the night. That’s what he did. And he was not an elected official. But he was somebody in our community that people could look to,” Lee said.
“That’s what I take from his modeling for me every day growing up. If somebody needed something, he was there to help out. When teenagers that he coached got into trouble or needed some help or had a question, they didn’t call their parents. They called my dad. Their parents were all working. That’s what that means to me.”
Lee acknowledged her job as director of social impact and community engagement for hometown United Airlines pays a whole lot more than the salary of a Chicago alderperson. She also joked that she and her kids will miss the free travel benefits.
Lee’s top three priorities for the ward, she said, are getting a handle on city services, improving public safety and doing “everything we can to ensure that every child has great educational opportunities and that we don’t lose more families to the suburbs.”
Both city ward maps headed for a June 28 referendum vote — one drawn for the Black Caucus and backed by 33 alderpersons, the other favored by the Hispanic Caucus — would turn the 11th Ward into the first Chicago ward in which a majority of the population is Asian American.
That reflects a 31% Asian American population gain (to 192,586) in the 2020 census.