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Chicago City Council votes to confirm first Asian American alderwoman

While the City Council celebrated its unanimous approval of Nicole Lee, some criticized the lack of community engagement that went into her appointment.

CHICAGO (CN) — Former financial consultant Nicole Lee was sworn in as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council Monday afternoon, following a unanimous approval vote by all 45 present city alderpersons.

Lee was appointed to represent the city's 11th Ward by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot late last week. She will replace the ousted former Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson, who was convicted of federal tax fraud in February. Only one other Asian American has served on the Chicago City Council in its 185 year history, former 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar. Lee is also the city's first Chinese American alderperson.

"I've spent most of my 47 years in [the 11th Ward neighborhoods of] Chinatown and Bridgeport, and I have deep roots in the community... I look forward to sitting next to you and working with you to move Chicago forward," Lee, who currently serves as the director of global community engagement at United Airlines, told the City Council following her swearing in.

Besides being the first Asian American woman to serve on the City Council, Lee's confirmation is also a symbolic knock on the once-powerful Daley family that produced the city's two longest serving mayors as well as several aldermen and Cook County commissioners. The 11th Ward, one of the few remaining white-majority areas of the city's South Side, was long seen as the Daleys' personal stronghold and a lynchpin of the white Democratic patronage networks that buoyed the family's political power.

"Today is a day to end white dominance in the 11th Ward," Presbyterian minister the Reverend Beth Brown said in an invocation to open the special City Council meeting to approve Lee.

Despite Lee replacing decades of white political leadership in the 11th Ward, her appointment was not without controversy. It was only announced Thursday, just a day after Lightfoot publicly said she needed more time to settle on a replacement for Daley Thompson. Hong Lee, a resident of the 11th Ward who spoke during the public comment period of Monday's special meeting, decried Nicole Lee's appointment as lacking community engagement.

"Truth be told, there was zero accountability to the people who live and work here, zero transparency and zero chances for public participation," they said, also speaking as a representative of the 11th Ward Independent Political Organization. "This is an aberration in our democracy."

Hong Lee characterized Nicole Lee's appointment as an attempt by the mayor to staff a vacant City Council seat with her own ally, "before most of the public has gotten wind of what's happened." They further accused Lightfoot of attempting to build her own patronage networks akin to those of the Daleys, despite running for mayor in 2019 as a reformer.

It doesn't help that Lee spent years working as a business advisor and marketing consultant for major oil corporation BP America, or that her father Gene Lee has his own ties to the old Daley Machine. Gene Lee once served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley's deputy chief of staff,  and pleaded guilty to embezzling $5,000 from a local Chinese American charity group, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, in 2014.

At a press conference following Lee's swearing in, Lee said she took her father's embezzlement as a cautionary tale she continues to abide by.

"One of the biggest lessons I learned from that experience was the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions... the best thing that we can do is take responsibility and move forward," Lee said.

Lee also said she was nervous about her new duties in city government, but excited to have a chance to act as a political leader for her home neighborhoods. Her current seat on the city council will expire in February 2023, and she declined to comment on whether she would run for re-election. She said her primary concern at the moment was just getting her office running and proving herself to her constituents.

"I'm still committed to getting into the job, making sure I can be a good alderperson to every resident of the 11th Ward, and I'm going to use every bit of this opportunity with this appointment to figure out if it's the right thing," Lee said.

When asked what she brings to the 11th Ward aldermanic office, what she will "kill at," Lee touted her ability to connect with people.

"I think it makes all the difference when people feel that they're heard and seen, and that's what I plan to do," she said.

Lightfoot also spoke at the post-meeting press conference, offering her support of Lee as alderwoman. However, Lightfoot also faced criticism from press over the fact that she appointed Lee after only a six-week selection process, while the city has been without an Inspector General for over five months. The Inspector General is tasked with investigating internal corruption and mismanagement in city government, and Lightfoot often clashed with former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson prior to his retirement last October.

When asked when she expected to appoint a new Inspector General, Lightfoot simply responded, "soon."

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