It was with a deep sense of sadness that I felt with the passing of Tony Lee who died on November 12, 2020 after a long deteriorating battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” I first met Tony almost 45 years ago. I was working for the Asian Multi-Media Center, a small non-profit organization and had cause to consult an attorney for answers to legal questions. I set up an appointment with Evergreen Legal Services, which then had an office in Rainier Valley. I was told by the receptionist that my appointment would be with a “Tony Lee.”
Imagine my surprise when this young Chinese guy, dressed in a blue work shirt and jeans comes into the meeting room. Now you have to understand that in the mid-1970s, lawyers wore three-piece suits and he didn’t, and they certainly weren’t Chinese. What I said to Tony were words he had certainly heard before and words that would come back to bite me: “Are you really a lawyer?” And then came that first time I heard that unmistakable bellowing Tony Lee laugh, a laugh so distinctive that you knew he was there even in a crowded room where you couldn’t see him. I don’t remember now why I went to see him but I do remember thinking after I talked to him that he was one smart dude. Whatever stereotype I had about lawyers, Tony shattered it.
You might say that Tony showed me the way. I decided to go to law school. At the same time, I began volunteering at Inter*im. I would often cross paths with Tony. We started a legal clinic at Inter*im, volunteering two afternoons a week, answering legal questions for drop-in clients. In 2006, I sat down with Tony for a couple of hours and interviewed for a profile on his life. Tony was a recipient of the Examiner’s Community Voice Award in 2006. The following is the story I wrote about Tony which appeared in the April 19 – May 2, 2006 issue, Volume 33, No. 8.
This article originally ran in April, 2006 ,in the International Examiner.
Tony Lee is the consummate social justice advocate. With over 30 years of experience as a lawyer, researcher, lobbyist and policy director for a number of advocacy organizations, Tony has spent his professional life committed to serving the legal and political rights of the poor, the underserved and the disenfranchised people of our society.
Tony may well be the foremost expert in this state on welfare rights. Arlene Oki, a longtime human services advocate for refugee rights, observed, “Someone with Tony’s skills and background [Harvard graduate and an attorney] could be earning six figures as a lobbyist for Boeing or pharmaceuticals, but instead chooses to do the people’s work. Tony’s work helps thousands of low-income individuals and refugees, to meet their basic needs.”
For his decades of advocacy work, Tony Lee is a recipient of the International Examiner’s “Community Voice Award.” He will be honored on May 17 .
Born in Shantou China, a seaport on the South China Sea in Guangdong Province, Tony came from a large family with nine siblings (eight sisters and one brother). Shortly after Tony was born, the family moved to Hong Kong after the Chinese communist revolution of 1949.
After four years in Hong Kong, Tony’s family tried to come to the United States but was denied admittance due to strict immigration quotas. The family moved instead to Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city with one of the largest Japanese populations outside of Japan as well as a significant Chinese presence. Tony went to grade school and grew up speaking Portuguese and “Chiuchow” (a Chinese dialect spoken in Guangdong Province).
In 1959, the family made it to America, emigrating to Seattle. With his parents operating a small grocery store in the Wallingford area, Tony grew up in a house a few blocks away from his current Fremont Public Association office. Like many immigrants he would later serve, Tony had to learn English as a second language, attending Hamilton (then) Junior High School and Lincoln High School.
After majoring in political science and graduating from Harvard in 1969, Tony wasn’t ready to join the workforce and returned to Seattle because his family was there. Many of his peers at Harvard went on to law school, so Tony did as well, applying to and being accepted at the University of Washington’s School of Law. Tony recalled that the only Asian attorneys practicing in the community were William Mimbu and William Wong, who were considerably older, and perhaps a few others, but there were no role models for him to emulate.
Graduating from law school in 1973, he was hired as a staff attorney to the State House of Representatives. But Tony wanted an opportunity to make a difference and was hired as a staff attorney in 1974 by Evergreen Legal Services (today known as Columbia Legal Services), a non-profit, community- based organization providing free/low-cost
legal representation and assistance to a low- income clientele in a range of areas from land- lord-tenant law to welfare assistance.
A few years later, Diane Wong, also hired as a staff attorney for Evergreen Legal Services, remembered, “I first met Tony when I returned to Seattle as a fledgling legal services attorney in 1976. Tony was with the welfare or public entitlement unit. At that time, the lawyers in that group were some of the most brilliant and committed attorneys in legal aid. They were dealing with very important social legal issues, as well as representing individual clients. Tony was a key member of the unit, and his experience and wisdom were critical for much of the work we did in the community clinic.”
Tony and Diane, as well as the late Bob Yamagiwa, then another Legal Services lawyer, and Rod Kawakami, newly graduated from law school, opened a free, volunteer community law clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Inter*Im [today known as InterIm CDA]. They provided legal advice and consultation to primarily Asian community members.
In 1977, Inter*Im was involved in the fight to keep the Milwaukee Hotel open. Judge Barbara Yanick had issued an order to close the International District hotel. Community volunteers kept the hotel open by maintaining it up to city codes.
As Inter*Im Director Bob Santos remembered: “Tony, Diane and Rod represented our grassroots group and asked Judge Yanick to reconsider her order to close the hotel. Our volunteer work, coupled with the legal expertise of our community lawyers, convinced the Judge to reconsider her order.”
The Milwaukee Hotel remained open for another 18 months. Several years later, Tony maintained his interest in preserving the International District by volunteering on the board of Inter*Im.
Tony developed a special expertise in public welfare law. In 1981, when the State Legislature considered changes in welfare law, Evergreen Legal Services tapped Tony to be their lobbyist in Olympia, particularly to advocate for the interests of their welfare clients. He discovered that he enjoyed the lobbying experience.
Shortly after the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle opened its Peace and Justice Center, Tony was approached to work for the Center. Having grown tired of being a lawyer – “burnt out,” he remembered – his new job allowed Tony the opportunity to use his skills as an advocate, focusing on social justice issues. He was involved in the development of a “down- town maintenance” ordinance that preserved low-income housing stock in the downtown area. Along with other low-income housing advocates, he lobbied for the passage of the ordinance, but unfortunately the ordinance was later struck down by the courts.
The Archdiocese was involved with Central American issues, particularly in the relationship between American foreign policy and the repressive regime in El Salvador. Catholic parishes provided sanctuaries for El Salvadoran refugees who had escaped. Tony’s role was to educate parishes and individual parishioners regarding the need to be involved in supporting these refugees.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration proposed drastic cuts in health and human services. Tony worked with community groups such as the Catholic Conference, Urban League and other welfare rights organizations to educate the public. In his role as community advocate, he was a whiz at providing technical assistance – working with community groups, drafting legislation, giving advice and dealing with the media.
Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling & Referral Service, recalled, “We met when we were both protesting and working to draw attention to the impact of the Reagan administration’s massive cutbacks in health and human services on ordinary people. We leafleted people outside the neighborhood supermarkets in lousy weather in the dead of winter. There was no mistaking his commitment to social justice!”
In 1989, Tony was hired by the Washington Association of Churches as its legislative director. His activities included coordination of that organization’s public policy work, representing the Protestant and Catholic denominations in our state. His main focus was on human rights issues such as the death penalty, apartheid and discrimination, and low-income issues such as welfare, Medicaid and affordable low-income housing. He was a full-time lobbyist in Olympia during state legislative sessions.
In 1995, Tony went to work for the Fremont Public Association. Immediately, he faced the challenge of analyzing the negative impacts of the Federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The main thrust of that Act was to eliminate the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and replace it with the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program which conditioned eligibility for welfare assistance on work requirements. Another provision of the Act was the elimination of benefits to legal immigrants and their families.
In 1996, to work toward mitigating the negative impact of the Federal Welfare Reform Act, Tony, along with such community activists as Narasaki, Cindy Domingo and the late Tyree Scott, organized 75 community-based groups to form the Washington Welfare Reform Coalition. The Coalition worked to restore benefits to immigrants by having the state step in to pick up what the federal government eliminated.
“The state did come through, more than any other state in the country,” Tony said. Rights were restored to food stamps and medical assistance.
At about the same time, Tony assisted Narasaki and other Asian social service activists, such as Habib Habib, in the creation of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC), which includes more than 100 Asian Pacific American groups with local APIC chapters formed in King and Pierce Counties, South Puget Sound, Snohomish, Southwest Washington and an affiliated organization in Yakima. APIC was also formed in response to cuts in refugee and immigrant benefits. APIC’s organizing efforts led to the first API Legislative Day in 1997, an annual event which attracts 2,500 API community members. In May 2004, 5,000 attended the APA Community Summit in the Tacoma Dome.
According to Narasaki, “Tony played a key role in the establishment of API Legislative Day, and continues to be central to the event organizing to this day. Tony’s wide-ranging knowledge of policy issues and expertise in advocacy, along with his astute judgment and inclusive leadership, have been essential to the success of every API Legislative Day event since its inception.”
Tony is also heavily involved with the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA). Tony is the Commission chair, currently in his third term. During his tenure, CAPAA pushed for state recognition of Asian Pacific Heritage Month which was formally approved in 2000. CAPAA has served a vital role acting as liaison between the API communities and the state government.
CAPAA’s functions are harmonious with Tony’s strengths – as a researcher, analyst, advisor, community educator, consultant and a community resource. Ellen Abellara, CAPAA’s executive director, has worked closely with Tony.
“Tony has both knowledge and passion for API issues,” she said. “The whole legislature and Governor Gregoire know him for his great work in his advisement on issues that impact our API community. As a community leader and advocate, he is very well respected. When he leads, people follow!”
Any profile of Tony would be incomplete without mention of his notorious laugh. Narasaki remarked, “Tony is good natured and has a great sense of humor. He has a loud and infectious laugh, and in a crowded room, people often locate him by his signature laugh.”
Wong was “absolutely floored by his loud laugh,” she said, “which seemed to spring spontaneously from somewhere deep in his body and then resonate through him and out to the world.”
Commitment to serving the people, a reputation for smarts, an advocate for income assistance and that laugh – it’s not a bad thing to be remembered for – that’s Tony Lee.
Tony Lee’s friends and families will hold an online celebration of his life on Friday, February 12, at 5:00 PM. View the livestream at www.tony-lee.com.