Susan Lee: Mak­ing Chi­nese com­mu­nity proud BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By HUA SHENGDUN in Maryland Sheng Yang con­trib­uted to the story.

Maryland State Se­na­tor Susan Lee wishes she could have learned to speak Chi­nese so she could have talked to her grand­par­ents about how they over­came ob­sta­cles in life in the United States. When she was grow­ing up, Chi­nese lan­guage schools were not around as they are now.

For Lee, who was born in the US with an an­ces­try traced to Guang­dong prov­ince in China, her Chi­nese-Amer­i­can iden­tity has al­ways been a source of en­light­en­ment dur­ing her pur­suit of equal­ity for her com­mu­nity.

A three-term mem­ber of the House of Del­e­gates in Maryland from 2002 to 2014, Lee be­came the first Asian-Amer­i­can state se­na­tor of Maryland and first mi­nor­ity se­na­tor from Mont­gomery County when she de­feated her Repub­li­can op­po­nent on Nov 4.

With strong back­ing from Chi­nese and Asian com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing her cam­paign, Lee won the support of more than 70% of the elec­torate who are among the wealth­i­est and most well-ed­u­cated in the greater Wash­ing­ton area.

Lee’s as­cent in Maryland pol­i­tics got a solid foun­da­tion from her fam­ily.

“There is one big in­spi­ra­tion for me; that is my fa­ther,” said Lee dur­ing an in­ter­view with China Daily at the State­house in An­napo­lis.

Lee’s fa­ther, Harry Park Lee, a US Navy veteran of World War II and later the pres­i­dent of a fed­eral la­bor union, was the first mi­nor­ity to hold the po­si­tion. He was her rock.

Born and raised as a sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese Amer­i­can in a gro­cery shop­keeper’s fam­ily in San An­to­nio, Texas, in the 1920s, her fa­ther faced over­whelm­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“I used to lis­ten to him talk­ing for hours on the phone with his union col­leagues about po­lit­i­cal strat­egy and how to get ben­e­fits for the work­ers and get bet­ter treat­ment,” she said.

Lee’s fa­ther passed away in July at the age of 88, shortly after Lee won the state Se­nate pri­mary elec­tion. When he was ly­ing in his deathbed, he was aware of her vic­tory.

Lee’s mother, China-born Mee Yee Lee, even­tu­ally be­came an artist with The Wash­ing­ton Post in the late 1960s and 1970s when very few Asian Americans had that kind of job.

“She was also an in­spi­ra­tion for me,” said Lee, “she showed me that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble as long as you try hard.”

“They al­ways in­stilled me this foun­da­tion that I had to do some­thing to make a dif­fer­ence in our world and com­mu­nity,” she added. “If you didn’t get in­volved, noth­ing would change.”

Lee had some tough times grow­ing up in Maryland in the 1960s, when there were very few Asian Americans in Mont­gomery County.

“A group of kids hung around me and hurled racial com­ments almost ev­ery day for about a year. I just kept it inside me,” she said. “I knew that I would one day over­come this.”

Against the head­winds in mid­dle school, Lee made up her mind to join the main­stream but also to fight against in­jus­tice. She chose to ma­jor in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence in col­lege.

After get­ting her bach­e­lor’s de­gree in 1976 from the Univer­sity of Maryland in Col­lege Park, Lee de­ter­mined to im­merse her­self more in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity. For her, Cal­i­for­nia was the best choice. The state has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of Chi­nese im­mi­grants.

Back to the place where her grand­par­ents first landed from China in the 1900s, she at­tended the Univer­sity of San Francisco School of Law.

Lee’s first in­tern­ship was with the Asian law Cau­cus, when she worked on help­ing low­in­come im­mi­grants. Lee came back to the greater Wash­ing­ton area after get­ting her law de­gree in 1982 so she could get closer to the “heart of pol­i­tics” while de­vot­ing her­self to civil rights cases, which she de­scribed as “a des­tiny” in life.

Lee first worked as an at­tor­ney for the US Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights for three years, then moved to the US Patent and Trade­mark Of­fice. After five years, she joined law firms and grad­u­ally got ac­tive in lo­cal pol­i­tics and was a mem­ber of the Mont­gomery County Demo­cratic Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.

Lee was nom­i­nated by the com­mit­tee in 2002 to fill a vacancy as a del­e­gate in the Maryland Gen­eral Assem­bly, out of 15 other can­di­dates. She, how­ever, soon had to run a full-scale cam­paign to se­cure the seat after the ses­sion ended a few months later. Lee won the elec­tion and be­came the first Asian Amer­i­can woman and Chi­nese Amer­i­can ever elected to the 188-mem­ber leg­isla­tive body.

“I never thought about be­ing a del­e­gate or se­na­tor, but when the op­por­tu­nity opened up, I said why not,” Lee re­called her mo­ti­va­tion. “It’s dif­fer­ent when look­ing in the win­dow from out­side than be­ing ac­tu­ally at the ta­ble and be­ing able to ac­tu­ally write the laws and pass them to help com­mu­ni­ties. You can do so much.”

Other than be­com­ing the assem­bly’s leader on cy­ber se­cu­rity and in­no­va­tion, iden­tity theft, on­line fraud, and con­sumer pro­tec­tion is­sues dur­ing her three terms, Lee in­deed also fo­cused on the im­mi­grants, es­pe­cially the Chi­nese and Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties.

In 2006, with the aid of lead­ing Chi­nese Amer­i­can com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions as well as other Asian Amer­i­can groups, Lee and state Se­na­tor Brian Frosh helped win recog­ni­tion of the Chi­nese Lu­nar New Year as an of­fi­cial day of com­mem­o­ra­tion in Maryland.

Lee, who served as deputy majority whip in the House of Del­e­gates since 2003, said the leg­isla­tive op­er­a­tion re­quired not only de­vo­tion but also nim­ble po­lit­i­cal skills to bring in col­lab­o­ra­tion.

“We should co­op­er­ate and work with other com­mu­ni­ties, such as Latino, African and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties to make us stronger and make it eas­ier to pass bills,” said Lee, who also served as the pres­i­dent of Women Legislators of Maryland for two terms and led ef­forts in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault, and hu­man trafficking

Lee re­cently helped get a law passed to of­fer crime vic­tims trans­la­tion as­sis­tance in court, which is par­tic­u­larly help­ful to im­mi­grants who of­ten face ob­sta­cles due to lan­guage bar­ri­ers. The pas­sage of the bill was a tough fight for Lee.

“It’s nec­es­sary to ed­u­cate other se­na­tors and del­e­gates to make them aware of the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity’s needs,” said Lee, who won a Lead­er­ship Recog­ni­tion Award from the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women in 2005 and 2013.

Lee is grate­ful for the help she re­ceived from the Chi­nese and Asian Com­mu­ni­ties.

“When­ever I need their help in par­tic­i­pat­ing in tes­ti­mony for a bill that I am propos­ing, they came, ren­der­ing full support,” she said, adding that the com­mu­ni­ties give her in­spi­ra­tion and urge to draft rel­a­tive bills.

Lee said she left no stone un­turned for her se­na­tor cam­paign.

“I did not take any­thing for granted, so I knocked thou­sands of doors in my dis­trict,” said Lee. “It was good my con­stituents looked at my is­sues and track record. I want to build on that in the se­nate and do even more.”

Lee’s Chi­nese first name, Fengqian, means a phoenix trav­el­ing from far away and fi­nally set­tling down, as she has in Maryland.


Susan Lee, a three-term del­e­gate of Maryland Gen­eral Assem­bly, was elected as state se­na­tor dur­ing the re­cent elec­tion.

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