Born in San Antonio and raised in Dallas, Susan Lee had the charm and accent of a Texan by the time her family moved to Maryland in the 1960s. She graduated from Churchill High School in Potomac, and went on to get a political science degree at the University of Maryland, College Park. Seeking geographic diversity in her life, she went to the University of San Francisco for her law degree, and clerked for San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Figone before returning to the East Coast.
A few weeks ago, Lee, now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, gave the annual Asian American Studies Program lecture at her alma mater, the University of Maryland. The precipitating event that formally launched Lee’s decision to run was an overheard remark by a former elected official. “Asian Pacific Americans don’t count because they don’t vote” was what he said.
Lee decided to prove him wrong by helping to found the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats (CAPAD) of Maryland, a group dedicated to getting APAs registered and involved politically.
Preceding that decision to climb into the electoral spotlight, however, was a lifetime of work on civil rights issues and Democratic Party politics, including service as the executive director of the National Democratic Council of Asian Pacific Americans and the president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Washington, D.C.
While she developed a firm APA base, Lee built coalitions with other communities. After developing an expertise in trademark and intellectual property cases, she volunteered with Washington Lawyers for the Arts.
A dedicated feminist, she became active in the Women’s Suburban Democratic Club. To learn more about the issues facing other minority communities, she joined the NAACP and the Multicultural Community Partnership.
By early 2002, her years of preparation finally paid off. One of the delegates representing her district in the Maryland House of Delegates had decided to accept an appointment as state treasurer. The state Democratic Central Committee was the body that was to choose the person to fill that slot for a nine-month term until the next election in November 2002. Because Lee was, by now, a member of that committee, she threw her hat in the ring.
Eight other candidates also made a bid for the post, but Lee’s strong credentials and connections paid off. On February 21, 2002, she was formally appointed by the governor as one of three representatives of Maryland’s 16th District in the House of Delegates.
Unfortunately, the House was already 45 days into a 90 day annual legislative session. But being a quick study, she fulfilled her duties admirably.
As soon as the legislative session ended, she was forced to start campaigning to hold her seat. Local state representative races of this type typically cost $100,000 or more, so she went to friends, family and political allies to ask for campaign money. While it often is hard for APAs to promote themselves and ask for money, politicians must do both, and Lee showed she could raise funds and solicit votes with the best of them.
When the votes were counted on November 5, 2002, she had come in second of six candidates, despite her relative lack of experience. She was re-elected to another term. (The top three candidates represent the district as a team.)
What was it like to be the first APA woman delegate? (Kumar Barve, an Indian American male, is the current majority leader of the House, and David Valderrama, a Filipino American judge, previously served as a delegate for 12 years.) “As a minority candidate in a district with few minorities, you must say that you will represent everyone, plus you will also bring that something extra from your ethnic or racial community,” she said.
Can an APA legislator have an APA focus even while representing a non-APA-majority district? As an APA legislator, Lee sponsored bills to stop hate crimes, identity theft and cyberterrorism, and co-sponsored bills to help APA and other minority small business owners compete for state contracts. Meanwhile, she provided constituent services and introduced legislation to benefit people of all backgrounds in the 16th District .
How did her family react to her life as an elected official? “APA moms and dads want a doctor or scientist, never a politician,” said Lee, although she admitted that her family was proud of her now that she has succeeded in this latest career.
How should other APAs get started if they want to follow her into elected office? “It’s best to work your way up through the party system,” said Lee.
“Get a reputation as a hard worker on other people’s campaigns. Make donations, join groups, participate in voter registration and political campaigning activities. Intern in a legislator’s office.
“And, most importantly, be sure to build coalitions, so that you will have the backers you need when you, too, are ready to run for elective office.”