Despite being the daughter of the larger-than-life longtime Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, Cynthia Lee-Sheng didn’t necessary inherit her father’s gregarious nature. Instead, the former CPA feels more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes “worker bee,” but life unexpectedly lead her into the public life. As Councilwoman of Jefferson Parish’s District 5, she made headway in making Metairie more attractive to young people; Fat City, once a declining area with seedy strip-mall strip clubs, has public art and food truck festivals. Recently she scored a big win for the area in rezoning a long-disputed swath of land on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, stymied by disputes dating back to Lee-Sheng’s childhood, paving the way to a major tenant, Trader Joe’s, the first in the Greater New Orleans area (the store is scheduled to open “middle-to-fall 2016”). Lee-Sheng has dealt with many personal losses, however: she lost her father to cancer in 2007, and then almost two years ago lost her husband of a sudden heart failure. He was only 47. On the eve of her unopposed election to the at-large council seat, Lee-Sheng talked about summoning her father’s strength in her political and personal life.
Q: You were at first resistant to public life; what made you change your mind? My dad was always in politics, and I think I picked up from that a love of public service. I was scheduled to get my MBA and I took one class. It was a federal regulation class; I walked out and said I’m not getting my MBA, I’m getting my masters in public administration. I had this love of serving, but I always saw myself as being the worker bee in the background – never in front, ever. But I was one of those young people who would go to the monuments in DC and just sit under them and be so inspired by the words. It was very idealistic. I always said I’d join the service before running for public office. But when my dad died, I was sort of being asked to go here and there, or speak on his behalf, and I don’t know what happened but people started saying, “You should run for public office.” And the background was certainly there, but being so out in the public was never something I was really comfortable with.
Q: Do you like public life? Some people are very comfortable as a public figure – they’re maybe even attracted to politics for that reason – and I’m very uncomfortable that way. But I deal with that side so I can get my hands on the issues. So I really still feel like I’m a worker bee on the inside, and sort of do the public thing because it’s a necessary part of my job.
And I think what was a life-changing thing for me was I saw my dad when he had leukemia for six months. You see someone at the end of their life, and he was so strong. It was breathtaking to me. If I put myself in that position, I would probably feel scared or angry. He just showed nothing but strength in his voice, the way he handled everything, and it knocked my socks off. After that, I thought my dad hung the moon. So when it came to running for public office, before I might have been so nervous, but if I could see my dad do that, I can run a hard campaign and I can lose and move onto something else and never look back. So I think it gave me that kind of courage.
My husband’s death is the same way. You learn how dark and low you can be in life. My dad had lived a full life, and I certainly grieved him. It’s a different experience when someone’s taken at the prime of their life and they’re not expecting it. You get very low. I’m on the grief journey and I’ve made friends with other widows, and I think of us as warriors.
I think of us as women warriors living in the world trying to raise our kids because we’ve known the darkest places. In time you learn there’s a strength you get – and it’s not a strength you would wish on anybody – but you do develop it. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I keep my eye on the big things, so it’s helped me in other aspects of my life, but it’s definitely been a journey.
Q: Do you see public service in the future for your children? It’s hard because … you don’t know that until you see what life kind of serves you and you go with it. I’ve lived a life like that where I didn’t have it planned out, and I just kind of went with my instincts as it came. And I would want them to have that kind of life, to be open to everything and just see what happens, and don’t just set this path for yourself at a young age. Be open to traveling a lot and meeting new people and having new experiences, and if you follow that it will lead you to a very exciting life.
Occupation: Incoming Jefferson Parish Councilwoman At-Large Age: 48 Born/raised: Metairie Education: Master of Public Administration, George Washington University; Bachelor of Business Administration, Loyola University; CPA
Family member names: Children Gavin (15) and Miranda (13) Favorite movie: Lost in Translation Favorite TV show: “That changes frequently, but now I’m in to ‘Luther.’” Favorite hobby: Volleyball playing, coaching and spectating Favorite restaurant: “No way; I have too many friends who own restaurants.” Favorite food: “Salt and pepper seafood; you can order it at some Chinese restaurants.” Favorite books: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino Favorite vacation spot: “London. I took my children last Christmas for sort of a healing trip, so it has a special place in my heart.”
I have no sense of direction and spend an embarrassing amount of time driving around in circles.