Tradition had always dictated that the outgoing mayor of Monterey Park pass the ceremonial gavel without much fanfare, but then Lily Lee Chen has never been one to be bound by ritual.
Chen ended her historic 9 1/2-month tenure as mayor of Monterey Park on September 10, 1984, in a time-honored ceremony in the council chambers of City Hall. The first Chinese-American woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city, Chen was to preside over the swearing-in and installation of David Almada as the new mayor.
But instead of giving brief opening remarks, Chen spoke for 15 minutes, recapitulating her accomplishments during the previous months and expressing her hopes that her agenda would continue under a new administration.
On a night set aside for Almada, fellow council members said, Chen ignored the tradition that reserved speechmaking for the incoming mayor and upstaged Almada. It was another example, they said, of Chen going her own independent way, no matter what convention might dictate.
"That was my evening," Almada said. "I don't think that speech should have been given that night. Lily should have kept with tradition. She has to take a look at things like that, to be cognizant of other people. She has to learn how to operate within the system."
"I felt a sense of obligation to let the people know what I was able to do for them and what I was looking forward to," Chen explained. "Critics can be so vicious. They can literally kill you. There's a saying in Chinese that when the pig gets fat and a person becomes well-known, they both should become concerned."
In nearly four years as a member of the Monterey Park City Council, Chen has taken a maverick's approach to public service that has drawn both numerous supporters and vocal detractors.
Her supporters acknowledge that the 49-year-old councilwoman might not always be a team player, but they insist that she is a selfless politician who rarely fails her constituents. During her term as mayor, they said, Chen took a leave of absence from her county job and worked full time to accomplish several objectives, including helping to close a local landfill and to secure long-sought funds for the expansion of an elementary school.
Democratic Party leaders call Chen a rising political star in a region and state where Asians are emerging as a new and potentially significant political force. Mindful of the promise of that vote, Chen has registered hundreds of Chinese voters in Monterey Park and assumed the role of spokeswoman for an ever-growing Asian population in the San Gabriel Valley.
Her critics complain that Chen, who sometimes refers to herself as a "historic first," is ambitious to a fault and has trouble accepting anything but center stage. They say she can be petty and vindictive, pointing to a recent campaign she is said to have organized in which several businesses pulled advertisements from a local Chinese-language newspaper critical of Chen.
What becomes clear when talking to Chen is that she is driven not so much by political ambition as she is by a desire for recognition and love from her father. Chen said her 85-year-old father, a retired educator and a member of the Taiwan legislature, has never quite gotten over the fact that his wife never bore him a son. Chen called it a terrible disappointment
to the family and said that she has spent her life trying to be a son to her father.
It is what prompted her to insert the family name Lee as a permanent part of her name the night she won election to the council three years ago.
"That was my way of telling my father that it was all right that he didn't have a son," said Chen, director of public affairs for the county's Department of Children's Services and a council member since 1982. "I had achieved something and the family name would carry on."
As Lily Lee Chen traipses from one political function to another, from a recent award dinner recognizing her longstanding commitment to the Boy Scouts of America to one to be held Sunday honoring her work fostering better relations between Asians and Jews, it is hard not to take notice of this woman with a penchant for bright red dresses and misplaced modifiers.
Reds and Greens
"I like bright colors, reds and jade greens," explained Chen, whose style of speech is characterized by the pauses and grammatical errors of someone speaking in their second language. "My consultant tells me I ought to look more subdued, that bright colors make me look too aggressive. I guess I'm not as conservative as I should be."
Some believe that the frenetic pace set by Chen, her appearance at countless political functions, the acceptance of honors both trivial and important and the registration by her supporters of hundreds of Chinese voters in the San Gabriel Valley all point to a run for higher office.