See you in September! Don Lee declares for 65th

Don Lee, surrounded by supporters, announcing his campaign for Assembly on Jan. 25
Don Lee, surrounded by supporters, announcing his campaign for Assembly on Jan. 25. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In a Jan. 25 press conference at Joy Luck Palace on Mott St. — as waiters plied the aisles with bamboo steamers full of dim sum — Chinatown activist Don Lee announced his campaign for Assembly in the 65th District. Lee, 56, grew up across the street from the dim sum palace and worked as a chef and waiter there at a previous incarnation of the eatery. His wife also worked there when it was a garment factory. “There is a desperate need to reform Albany,” Lee said. “The public deserves clean government and I mean to deliver. The other priorities for our campaign are better healthcare delivery, supportive services for seniors and jobs through small businesses. All of Lower Manhattan — from Battery Park City and the Financial District to the Lower East Side and Chinatown — is under intense pressure from forces that threaten to price long-term residents and businesses out of their neighborhoods. I am running to stand up for the people I have lived with and worked with my entire life.” As Lee spoke on stage he was flanked by community supporters, along with street vendors who he helped protect against overzealous police enforcement and also newsstand vendor Marilyn Louie, whose kiosk he tried to keep the city from reducing in size. Less than a week after Lee’s announcement, Governor Cuomo proclaimed that April 19 would be the special election to fill the Lower Manhattan Assembly seat, formerly held by fallen Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The County Committee will meet this weekend to pick the Democratic nominee. But Lee’s eyes are more firmly set on the primary election in September, when all the district’s voters will get to weigh in. Lee, his wife, Lai, and their daughter, Victoria, live in Battery Park City. His father was the mechanic foreman for the Hong Kong bus company — a very good job, Lee noted — but emigrated with his family to America, where he became a dishwasher and dress presser, to give them greater opportunity. Growing up, Lee attended district public schools — P.S. 130, J.H.S. 65 and Seward Park High School — before graduating from New York University with an accounting degree. An IT specialist, he worked for a decade in city government, starting in the Koch administration, before moving into the private sector. He has a history of activism in the district, including helping lead the Grand St. Coalition that fought back efforts by the M.T.A. to cut subway service to the Grand St. station during construction. And after 9/11, he led efforts to open and organize a disaster relief center on Mott St. He launched recovery and revitalization activities with community leaders and activists to support small business and address health and safety in the Downtown area. More recently, Lee helped defend shop owners and licensed street vendors who found themselves suddenly arrested. In many cases, individuals were threatened with deportation by what Lee called “a criminal justice system run amok and enforcement that was predatory in nature.” As a member of the executive cabinet in the South Manhattan Healthcare Network, he advocated for funding to modernize and expand Gouverneur Health Services on Madison St.

Veteran TV journalist Ti-Hua Chang, enjoying some dim sum, said of Don Lee, “This is someone who actually deserves to be in Albany.”
Veteran TV journalist Ti-Hua Chang, enjoying some dim sum, said of Don Lee, “This is someone who actually deserves to be in Albany.”

  Among other supporters at the press conference were Rocio Sanz, a board member of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce and a member of Community Board 2, who became friends with Lee when he was formerly on the West Side community board. “I always found him to be a very relatable, responsible and devoted person,” Sanz said. “He was not only for businesses but also for the community in general.” Karlin Chan, a member of C.B. 3, called Lee “an old friend. He’s an ideal candidate,” he said. Nelson Hom, a high school friend of Lee’s, recalled of him, “He was always helping somebody out — on his own time.” Another supporter is Ti-Hua Chang, the award-winning TV journalist. “This is somebody who actually deserves to be in Albany,” he said of Lee. “So many people don’t deserve it. He’s done all the community work, the volunteer work. He’s done all the right things that politicians should — and yet people say it’s ‘David versus Goliath’ [for him] because of the political clubhouses.” News vendor Louie said, “I think he would be a good assemblymember. He’s helping people on his own time, free, volunteer. You don’t find that kind of people around.” Veteran photographer Corky Lee, who has long documented the city’s Asian-American community, was covering the event. Asked if he endorsed Lee, he said, “As a freelance journalist, I can’t really support anyone. But if I have to, I would support Don. I know what he’s done. “And he speaks Cantonese,” he added. “Most of the people who live in Chinatown speak Cantonese, and are the people who put [Councilmember] Margaret Chin in office.”

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