Lee brings the perspective of a young father, nonprofit arts leader to the San Diego City Council
Kent Lee, the newest member of the San Diego City Council, brings the perspective of a father of two young children and someone with expertise in the local arts and nonprofit communities.
Lee, 37, is also the first generation Asian American to represent the city’s most Asian municipality, a key role as San Diego and its council become increasingly diverse.
He also has a view on the city’s housing crisis, which is becoming more common with rising interest rates and property values: Lee says the Mira Mesa home he and his wife bought years ago would be nearly impossible to afford today.
Lee, a Democrat, replaces incumbent Republican Chris Cate as representative for the central inland District 6, which includes University City, Mira Mesa, Kearny Mesa and the Convoy District.
A 2007 graduate of UC San Diego, Lee said in an interview last week that he was excited to represent University City more than 15 years after graduating there.
He said the perspective of being the only father of young children on the nine-member council will be important. Vivian Moreno gave birth to her first child last summer, but no other council members have young children.
“So much of the city is around young families trying to figure out if this is where they’re going to stay,” said Lee, who raises young children Alynna and Oliver with his wife, Phuong.
His nonprofit experience, first with the Boy Scouts of America and more recently with the Pacific Arts Movement, will also be important to his work on the council, Lee said.
“The city is a nonprofit in many ways,” he said. “We always think about the public good, we have a big mission and we have a limited number of resources. And we’re always trying to figure out how to use what we have available and achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”
Lee said it was important to him to be a voice for Asians and Pacific Islanders on the council. But he said his perspective will be much broader.
“Sometimes we’ll want to amplify those voices, but that’s not the only community I’m trying to represent,” Lee said. While Asians are the largest ethnic group in District 6, they make up only 40 percent of the population there.
Lee said his family’s experiences give him a great appreciation for the origins of many Asians in San Diego.
His mom is from Vietnam and his dad is from Burma, but the family is ethnically Chinese.
“I think it speaks to the complexity of many immigrant families,” he said.
His work with the Pacific Arts Movement included coordinating the annual San Diego Asian Film Festival. Lee said he strives to present the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in a realistic and positive light.
Lee grew up in West Covina in the San Gabriel Valley, moved to Orange County for high school, then moved to San Diego for college.
He said that UCSD was not a long-term goal of his, but that he chose the school because it was far enough from home and because he thought San Diego was a beautiful place. He is the first in his family to graduate from university.
His inauguration on Monday will eliminate the last Republican vote on the council and give Democrats a 9-0 majority. But Lee said residents shouldn’t expect the council to act in unison.
“I expect we’ll continue to see a really healthy debate,” he said.
Lee could be the decisive choice between the two loose four-member voting blocs on the council.
One block includes Jennifer Campbell, Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Stephen Whitburn. The second block, sometimes considered more progressive, includes Sean Elo-Rivera, Joe LaCava, Vivian Moreno and Monica Montgomery Steppe.
Lee has been a prolific volunteer, including nine years with the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group and serves on the American Red Cross, the UCSD Chancellor’s Community Advisory Board, and Alpha Phi Omega.
He has also worked with the Asian Business Association of San Diego and the San Diego Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.
He said he would focus on solving the city’s housing crisis, but stressed that new housing must come with complementary infrastructure.
Every community in District 6 either has a new development plan that calls for high-rises — Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa — or is in the process of developing one — University City.
While such density increases are sometimes unpopular with longtime residents, Lee pointed to his decisive victory over fellow Democrat Tommy Hough in this fall’s District 6 runoff.
Hough opposed the plans to dramatically increase density, while Lee said bold changes are needed to address the housing crisis and allow nurses, firefighters and teachers to live in San Diego.
“The voters have made it pretty clear where they think San Diego should go,” Lee said. Lee received 60.5 percent of the vote, and Hough received 39.5 percent.
Changes to the Convoy District, which is gaining momentum as a culinary destination, must be carefully planned, Lee said.
“We will see a transition from a predominantly commercial and industrial community to one that will include residential in the future,” he said. “We have to make sure we can keep the businesses that are here, especially the mom-and-pop shops that have been here for decades. How do we shape that growth?”
Lee, 37, will be the second youngest member of the council behind Raul Campillo (35). Six of the nine members are under 45: von Wilpert is 39, Moreno and Elo-Rivera are 40, and Montgomery Steppe is 44. Whitburn is 58, LaCava is 68, and Campbell is 77.
Council members receive an annual salary of $124,000.