A new era rises in Chicago’s 11th Ward with Nicole Lee

The old 11th Ward was a bonanza of power for the Daley family for decades. With Lee’s appointment, the new 11th Ward will hopefully be a bonanza of power for her community.

SHARE A new era rises in Chicago’s 11th Ward with Nicole Lee
Nicole Lee speaks at a press conference about being selected as the new 11th Ward Alderperson on Thursday at the Zhou B Art Center.

Nicole Lee speaks at a press conference about being selected as the new 11th Ward Alderperson on Thursday at the Zhou B Art Center.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice of Nicole Lee as the next alderperson of Chicago’s 11th Ward is “Zuì hǎo de.”

Translation, “first-rate.”

A new era rises as an old one fades. Lee, a United Airlines executive, was born and raised in Chinatown. If confirmed by the Chicago City Council, she will become the first person of Chinese descent and first Asian American woman to serve on the council — 185 years after Chicago was incorporated.

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Lightfoot appointed Lee to replace former 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, who resigned in February after he was convicted in federal court of lying to regulators and filing false income tax returns.

Thompson, the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and grandson of another mayor, Richard J. Daley, comes from a family that has dominated Chicago politics since the middle of the 20th century.

Now, the 11th Ward is set to become the city’s first majority Asian American ward under a ward remap that will go before the voters on June 28.

The city’s Asian population jumped by 31% from 2010 to 2020. It is the fastest-growing racial group in Chicago, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Lee’s appointment is an overdue nod to their burgeoning empowerment.

“Nicole Lee has spent her life expanding and amplifying 11th Ward issues and voices,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Her dedication to empowering communities and building coalitions is evident in her career and in her involvement in a variety of community organizations.”

“The 11th Ward is a diverse community of hard-working people who embody the grit, love and neighborhood pride that make Chicago a great city,” Lee responded.

Lee currently serves as United’s “director of social impact, optimization and community engagement,” working with non-profits and was involved with the company’s charitable giving.

She previously worked as a consultant and in the finance arena, and with the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. Lee, who says she is fluent in Cantonese, served on the Asian American Advisory Council at the University of Illinois at Chicago and as president of the Chicago Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

At last Thursday’s press conference, Lightfoot was asked if she had any concerns about Lee’s tie to the Daley family — and a dark moment for her own. Lee’s father, Gene Lee, a Chinatown civic leader, once served as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 2014, he was convicted of stealing $100,000 from a Chinatown charity and spending at least part of it on himself, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“None whatsoever. Nicole’s her own person,” Lightfoot replied.

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Lightfoot had been coy about whether she would tap an Asian American to the seat. The cadre of 27 applications for the appointment was racially and ethnically diverse.

At this fragile time in Chicago race relations, there was only one way to go.

The war between the City Council’s Black and Latino caucuses over the new city ward map has pushed the decision to the voters. But both sides agreed on one thing — it is time for an Asian-majority ward.

In 2016, Josina Morita was elected to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, becoming the first Asian American elected to a countywide board in Cook County. Today there are more than 100 Asian Americans elected to offices across Illinois, she says.

The old 11th Ward was a bonanza of power for the Daley family for decades.

With Lee’s appointment, the new 11th Ward will hopefully be a bonanza of power for her community.

Laura Washington is a political analyst for ABC 7. Follow her on Twitter @MediaDervish

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this column included a paragraph with an unintentional stereotype of Asian Americans. The paragraph has been removed.)

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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