With the Queens City Council District 31 special election less than a week away, NY City Lens continues its mission to help New Yorkers get to know the candidates. On February 23, Queens voters will choose among nine candidates, via the new ranked-choice voting system. They’ll be asked to list candidates from most to least preferred.
The second of our “Five Questions” for candidates series features Nicole Lee, an entrepreneur and disability rights advocate who has run her own small businesses for more than 20 years. They include selling cosmetics as well as opening a daycare center for children with disabilities. Lee finds herself competing to fill the council seat vacated by Donovan Richards, who was elected Queens Borough President in 2020. (This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
You have more than 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur. You don’t have a lot of political experience, however. How does your entrepreneurial background make you the right person for the job?
I think you should always think that you’re the best and nobody could beat you. I tell my kids that every day. People call it arrogance, I call it confidence. They say entrepreneurship is taking a small idea and making it a big bubble and people fit into that bubble with you. Entrepreneurs have a small idea and they take it further, so that’s why I think my background is best here. I have multiple skills that I can give to City Hall. I plan on sitting on multiple boards and multiple committees. I have relationships with people who are already in City Hall and the state assembly and we have the same agenda, to make a difference not just for District 31 but for New York City period—for not just black and brown people, disabled people, for everyone.
You are one of the few candidates who is putting disability inclusion at the forefront of your campaign. Why is that?
My son is autistic. He is 16 years old. I started most of my businesses because of my children and their needs. He needed the most help, so I feel that including him in the world, including him not just with special needs people but with other people, helped him progress. So I push for inclusion because of that, because at first hand, I’ve seen it. I’ve learned it along the way, being a special needs advocate not only for my son but for other children and adults. So that’s why inclusion is at the forefront of this campaign. I’m a special needs mom, a special needs advocate and I walk around with an invisible S on my chest every day. I would love to incorporate sign language into our school system as a second language. Not everyone is deaf but some kids or adults don’t even have language, so I think you can teach them that language, that would make them more adaptable to society. Some people are not aware of all the different special needs in the world and that’s just important to me.
How does your disability strategy differ from your opponent Nancy Martinez?
I haven’t heard a strategy to be honest from Nancy. She’s also an entrepreneur. She does more healthcare work I believe [as a director of a healthcare training school]. I am an international entrepreneur. I don’t only focus on one topic. I focus on various topics in business. I’m a working consultant. We help small business owners obtain grants. And also we help them just do the paperwork the right way—how to incorporate, how to start a business. I’ve been awarded entrepreneurship of the year awards, several of those, from Florida, New York, Atlanta. So I think that separates me from her quite a bit. Nancy started the health care thing. That’s fine. But what else has she done? I sat on boards. I’m on The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy board, Business Alliance Board, Virtual Eastern Queens Economic Development board.
What plan does your platform have to combat the COVID-19 pandemic?
I’m trying to build back businesses. Over 50% of our businesses probably won’t reopen because of lack of funding, due to COVID. . I know one of my businesses was hurt for almost four months during the pandemic and we still have to pay for our overhead, we still have to pay employees, we still have to pay electricity, and I still had to pay for my own home and take care of family, so a lot of business owners are really suffering. That would definitely be one of the forefronts. The other one is housing. The housing situation is part of the plan of building businesses and communities as well. The third is health care, of course. In the Rockaways, we only have one hospital, so they definitely need a second hospital because we have poor quality of healthcare in District 31.
I plan on making sure we have enough vaccinations for everyone especially as the world opens up. During COVID, they had the bed crisis when we had the health care hospitals overpacked, and we had to go abroad to get other nurses and doctors and beds and equipment here. We need to help each other and help people. I’m a big person for the barter system. I think that I help people and it comes back to me in many different ways. If you don’t have enough resources in the district, I’ll go outside the district to get that for the people
Do you think the new ranked-choice voting system will be effective in delivering the best candidate for District 31?
You know what? It’s hard to say because it’s the first time it’s coming out now. I can say I really don’t like the system to be honest, because it feels like a popularity contest. We’re still trying to figure out how it works. We’re outside, we’re at the polling sites, knocking on doors. We’re just letting people know that we’re here and they have the option to rank me first or second. I’m trying to go third but hopefully they’ll rank me in the top two. I’m learning the process myself. So I’m curious to see how it’s going to play out. We have a lot of black Democratic candidates as well. So people are talking about splitting the vote. So people are trying to team up. I’m just not going to team up with somebody if their views are not the same as mine. So I’m not sure, to be honest, of how it’s going to work out.