Suzanne Lee has lived in Boston most of her life, and knows something about the city’s psyche. So she wasn’t surprised to meet some skeptical voters when she began her race for Boston City Council.
She is, after all, a Chinese-American woman running in a district historically dominated by South Boston.
“I was knocking doors on G Street, near South Boston High,’’ she said. “A man came to the door and said to me, ‘Are you crazy? Don’t you know what you’re up against?’ ’’
Lee was unfazed. “We talked for half an hour, and he made a donation to my campaign and wanted to hold a house party.’’
If Lee didn’t shock the Boston political establishment last week, she certainly surprised it. She placed first in the District 2 preliminary election, comfortably ahead of incumbent Bill Linehan and challenger Bobby Ferrara.
This was a surprise because conventional wisdom holds that South Boston holds the title to the seat. Even though the district also includes Chinatown and part of the South End, it has always been represented by politicians from Southie. Traditionally, that’s where the votes have been.
But that history does little to daunt Lee. There has been nothing traditional about Lee’s bid for office. It follows 35 years as an educator, including a celebrated decade as principal of the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown. During that same period she was a neighborhood activist working on housing and immigration issues.
As a school principal, she was known for bridging ethnic and economic barriers and turning around schools that others were close to giving up on. She says there are parallels between winning the trust of parents and teachers and making the case for herself to voters. “I’m not a regular politician,’’ she concedes. “I had a career, a wonderful career. But I feel that in this time in our city, my voice and my skill set are needed to move the city forward.’’
Lee came to the United States from China at age 11, and grew up in Grove Hall. She graduated from Girls’ Latin School, before it became Latin Academy. She lived in the South End for years, before moving to Chinatown a couple of years ago. She was a founder of the Chinese Progressive Association, a left-leaning advocacy group that has spawned a generation of Chinatown activists.
Her difficulty in coming to America helped shape her politics. Women, she said, had a far more difficult time emigrating from China than men under the immigration laws of the time. “When I moved here, it was the first time I’d ever seen my father, and I hadn’t seen my mother since I was 6,’’ she said. Her father, she explained, had lived in Boston since the 1930s, but wasn’t allowed to bring his wife over until years later. In the interim, he traveled back and forth. “When my mother emigrated, I didn’t have papers,’’ she said. That is a story she had seldom told until recently, and one that she said explains part of her passion for politics. “That’s why I believe that when policies are being made, people need to have a voice,’’ she said.
Lee said she wanted to run for City Council partly to foster greater civic involvement. She rejects the idea that voters are apathetic, but believes politicians haven’t done enough to encourage participation. “I was taught to believe in government of the people, for the people, and by the people,’’ she says. “Somewhere, that ‘by the people’ part has gotten lost. ’’
Incumbents in district elections rarely face competitive races, and almost never lose preliminaries. But clearly, Lee is in a competitive position, never mind the (fading) presumption that South Boston unity trumps all. Lee argues that voters, regardless of neighborhood, want the same things, like safe streets and better schools. And a chance to be heard.
“I’m convinced that people who’ve known me for 35 years know what I can do,’’ Lee said. “The challenge is to let people who don’t know me hear me. It’s not about where people live.’’
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.