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Nicole Lee confirmed as new 11th Ward alderman, first Chinese American on City Council

Nicole Lee confirmed as new 11th Ward alderman, first Chinese American on City Council 01:02

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Nicole Lee became the first Chinese American to serve on the Chicago City Council on Monday, as the council voted unanimously to confirm her as the new alderman for the 11th Ward.

Appointed last week by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Lee was greeted enthusiastically by the City Council during back-to-back meetings of the Rules Committee and the full council Monday afternoon before she was sworn in at City Hall.

"You're going to add a significant and important voice, and a representative voice, to the discussion of City Council that is very important to our region, our state, our country," said Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) during Lee's confirmation hearing before the Rules Committee.

Lee is the first woman and first Asian American to represent the 11th Ward, the longtime power base of the Daley family, which is all but certain to become the city's first Asian American majority ward when the ongoing process to redraw the city's ward maps is completed.

Lee said she was inspired to apply to become the 11th Ward alderman by her father, Gene Lee, who served as deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Gene Lee pleaded guilty in 2014 to federal charges accusing him of stealing money donated to a charity. The charges were not connected to his work in the Daley administration, and Nicole Lee had nothing to do with the criminal case.  

While last week Lightfoot sought to prevent questions about Gene Lee's conviction, Nicole Lee on Monday addressed them head-on.

"One of the biggest lessons that I learned from that experience was the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions," Lee said. "We're all human beings, and sometimes mistakes are made, and the one thing that we can do … the best thing that we can do is take responsibility and move forward."

Asked what her first priority will be when she takes office, Lee said she plans to make sure the ward office gets reorganized and catches up constituent services that have fallen behind since her predecessor, former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, left office.

"The next top priority for me is safety," Lee said. "I think anybody that lives in the city understands that: Safety, safety, safety."

Lee takes office roughly six weeks after Thompson resigned, following his conviction on federal charges.

In welcoming her to the City Council, fellow aldermen repeatedly joked about the difficult job she is taking on.

"Enjoy your day. This will be the last day that you're going to be happy on this floor," said Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), quoting former Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who served on the Council for six years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Lee, who has worked the past 15 years at United Airlines, including the past three as director of social impact and community engagement, is also only the second Asian American to serve on the City Council. The only previous Asian American alderman was Ameya Pawar, who represented the 47th Ward on the North Side for two terms from 2011 to 2019.

Lee has a long record of community service in the city's Asian community, including as a member of the UIC Asian American Advisory Council, a former president of the Chicago chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a former co-chair and founding member of the Asian Giving Circle, and a former vice president of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association.

After being sworn in Monday afternoon, Lee said, "I could not be more happy, and thrilled, and excited, and a little bit scared."

"While more and more people with kids my age are leaving the city, I'm firmly committed to my beloved Chinatown, Bridgeport, and the greatest city in this country, and arguably the world, the city of Chicago," she added.

Lee will hold the 11th Ward seat until the next city elections in 2023. She hasn't said yet whether she plans to run for the seat next year, saying she's taking it one step at a time.

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