Edwin M. Lee, who emerged from bureaucratic obscurity to become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor more than seven years ago, died suddenly early Tuesday morning after suffering an apparent heart attack while grocery shopping. He was 65 years old.

London Breed, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, became acting mayor upon Lee’s death at 1:11 am Tuesday.

“Ed was not a politician,” Breed said at a City Hall press conference Tuesday morning. “He did not always deliver the best sound bite. He was humble and determined. No matter the job he held, he was fair and collaborative.”

Pushing back against charges that Lee’s policies hurt the poor and middle class, Breed said, “Mayor Lee believed in the power of opportunity.”

London Breed, president of the Board of Supervisors and acting mayor, speaks at City Hall following the death of Mayor Ed Lee.
London Breed, president of the Board of Supervisors and acting mayor, speaks at City Hall following the death of Mayor Ed Lee. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Lee inherited a town still recovering from the Great Recession. And he leaves behind a city few imagined, with an economy overheated by the growth of high-tech companies Lee helped fuel with tax breaks to keep Twitter in San Francisco.

To Lee’s supporters, the explosion of tech companies based in San Francisco launched the long-stalled revitalization of the city’s mid-Market area, creating relatively high-paying jobs while practically eliminating unemployment.

But to his detractors, the growth of companies like Salesforce, Uber, Airbnb and LinkedIn changed San Francisco’s character and reputation as haven for bohemians, artists and immigrants. To them it was the final straw for middle-income people struggling to find  housing they could afford in San Francisco.

In January 2011, Lee became the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ consensus candidate to replace Gavin Newsom after the San Francisco mayor was elected lieutenant governor. Lee won the board over with a promise to be a caretaker mayor until a new mayor was elected in 11 months. But he reversed that promise, claiming he was persuaded by a  “Run Ed, Run” campaign manufactured by his backers.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and then-Police Chief Greg Suhr in 2013.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and then-Police Chief Greg Suhr in 2013. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

To his supporters in the Asian-American community, Lee was a hometown hero.

Anni Chung, executive director of Self-Help for the Elderly in Chinatown, was among those paying tribute to Lee at City Hall. Chung, who noted the death of Chinatown dynamo Rose Pak just over a year ago, said Lee’s death was a second hard blow.

“The impact of that loss — I don’t think any words could describe our feelings right now, ” Chung said. “But there is sadness and tremendous gratitude for both of them, but particularly for Mayor Lee,” who she said ‘took care of the city’s Asian-American community.”

Lee’s ascension to Room 200 gave both Oakland and San Francisco Asian-American mayors at the same time. Shortly after Lee became mayor, Oakland’s Jean Quan took Ed Lee “as my date” to a White House dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

“We were always allies on the national front,” Quan told KQED. “I remember the last time I talked to him we were so upset about Trump. Many of these things that we fought for as pretty young people, right now we’re trying to defend and hold onto.”

Ed Lee delivers his State of the City Address on January 26, 2017. In part, Lee dedicated the speech to directly attacking President Trump's polices.
Ed Lee delivers his State of the City Address on January 26, 2017. In part, Lee dedicated the speech to directly attacking President Trump’s polices. (Erasmo Martinez/KQED)

Born in Seattle to Chinese immigrants, Lee grew up in public housing — an experience that helped shape his outlook. His mother worked as a seamstress; his father, a cook, died when he was 15, and Lee was the first in his family to attend college. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1974, and then attended UC Berkeley for law school, graduating in 1978.

Lee worked as a civil rights attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, where he was an advocate for affordable housing and the rights of tenants and immigrants.

He entered city government in 1989, when Mayor Art Agnos appointed him as an investigator, helping to enforce San Francisco’s first whistleblower law. He worked as the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, became director of City Purchasing, and then in 2000 was appointed director of the Department of Public Works. In 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom named him city administrator, a post he held until his appointment as mayor in 2011.

Lee leaves behind his wife, Anita, and their two grown daughters, Brianna and Tania. In an interview with KQED in 2011, Brianna described her dad as anything but the stereotypical Chinese-American parent.

“My experience of him growing up was he wasn’t anything like the tiger mom,” Brianna Lee said. “He always had a sense of humor. I guess that’s the big thing people know him by. He had a sort of a cheesy goofball humor.  Bad puns here and there.”

As Mayor, Ed Lee Broke Barriers, But Leaves a Complicated Legacy 12 December,2017Scott Shafer

Author

Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

Author

Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle’s award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: mlagos@kqed.org Twitter @mlagos Facebook facebook.com/marisalagosnews

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