Mayor Emeritus, Monterey Park, CA
Lily Lee Chen was the first Chinese American woman to become mayor in the United States. She was honored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at the US Bicentennial celebration as a “symbol of immigrants contributing to America” and was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “8 Los Angeles Women You Should Know”.
Born in 1936 in Tianjin, China, Lily’s early life was marked by upheaval as her family fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Communist Party took control of Tianjin in 1949. Her journey led her to the United States where she pursued higher education and started a family.
Chen dedicated 27 years of her career to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. Her specialized Asian Outreach program was adopted by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as a national prototype. Chen distributed over $70 million in federal funding for social service agencies across the 88 cities in LA County.
During her time at the County, Chen became highly aware of the issues facing the growing immigrant population in Monterey Park. Encouraged by Cesar Chavez and the local community, she ran for City Council in 1981. Despite a narrow defeat losing by 28 votes, she rejected a recount, congratulated the winner, and remained undeterred. She ran again in 1982 and this time won by the largest number of votes in the history of the City. Her election stood as a testament to her success in overcoming nativist sentiment and fostering harmony.
As Mayor, Chen lobbied for Monterey Park to host the field hockey games in the 1984 Olympics. In 1985, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith honored her with the distinguished Community Service Award for coalition building, and Monterey Park was bestowed with the National Civic League’s “All-America City Award” for its success in embracing ethnic diversity.
Chen’s achievements opened the door for several Presidential appointments. In 1980, President Carter appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Adult Education, where she proposed federal funding for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. Now immigrants across the nation have access to English language education on their pathway to citizenship.
Chen chaired the Peace and Security Task Force on the Platform Committee of the Democratic National Convention in 1984 and also chaired the Asian Pacific Leadership Council at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. President Ford appointed her to various committees, including the Defense Secretary Perry’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), U.S. Industry Policy Advisory Board, and the California State World Trade Commission. In 1980, President Carter personally recognized her in the White House for coordinating the Conference on Families. In 2016, President Obama presented her with the Gold Award for Volunteer Services.