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.”
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.
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.”
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.”