Mayor Ed Lee’s death brings tears, reflection to a changed San Francisco

Mayor Ed Lee, the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco who led The City as it transformed into the global center of the tech industry, died early Tuesday morning after suffering a heart attack. He was 65.

Lee was a career bureaucrat who worked in city government for more than two decades before becoming the 43rd mayor of San Francisco in 2011. As mayor, he cracked light-hearted jokes and shied away from cutthroat politics.

SEE RELATED: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee dies at age 65

Under his watch, San Francisco’s economy flourished in the wake of the Great Recession with a boom in the technology sector. His success also exacerbated San Francisco’s wealth inequality and caused displacement.

“Ed Lee probably had one of the most difficult jobs of any big city mayor, navigating from probably the worst economic crisis we have seen in generations to trying to oversee some of the greatest wealth San Francisco has had,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“We often had many clashes about how that was to be done, but always thought that he was a fair man that would sit down and talk with us,” Paulson said.

The mayor suffered a heart attack Monday night while shopping at a Safeway near his house in Glen Park. An ambulance transported him to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital shortly after 10 p.m.

“We attempted life-saving measures for several hours,” Dr. Susan Ehrlich, the hospital’s chief executive, said at a news conference. Lee died at 1:11 a.m.

Upon his death, Board of Supervisors President London Breed became acting mayor of San Francisco.

Breed is the first black woman to serve as mayor and the second woman to fill the position. Dianne Feinstein, a U.S. senator and former president of the Board of Supervisors, succeeded Mayor George Moscone after his assassination in 1978.

Lee’s death sent City Hall into mourning. Breed addressed the public during a morning news conference where she praised the mayor for creating 140,000 jobs.

“He believed everyone should have the opportunity to have a good job with a good wage,” Breed said. “He believed in a city where a poor kid from public housing could become mayor.”

Both Breed and Lee were raised in public housing.

“Ed was not a politician. He did not always deliver the best soundbyte or carry the room with unspoken charisma,” Breed said. “Flash never mattered to him. Disagreements never deterred him. He was humble and determined no matter the job he held. He was fair and collaborative no matter the heat of the moment.”

City officials console one another ahead of a news conference at City Hall surrounding the sudden death of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on Tuesday, December 12, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Breed will continue to be the District 5 representative on the Board of Supervisors while serving as acting mayor.

The board can vote to appoint Breed or someone else as the interim mayor, although they are not required to do so, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

It would take six votes by the board to appoint an interim mayor and a board member cannot vote for themselves, according to Herrera. If Breed is appointed interim mayor, she would choose a successor to fill the vacant District 5 seat.

There will be an election on June 5, 2018, when voters will decide who will serve as mayor to fill the unexpired term of Lee, whose term ends Jan. 8, 2020, according to Herrera.

Lee, the son of a Chinese immigrant family, was raised in public housing in Seattle. He went on to graduate from Bowdoin College in 1974 and later earned a law degree from UC Berkeley.

After graduating law school, Lee worked as a civil rights attorney for the Asian Law Caucus.

Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu said Lee was a role model for Asian-Americans as the mayor of San Francisco at a time when discrimination is apparent throughout the country.

“The legacy that he leaves is not just one of advancing civil rights,” Chu said. “It is also really showing that, in the United States, everything is possible whatever your upbringing.”

Lee’s career in San Francisco government began in 1989 when he was hired to investigate whistleblower complaints. He later served as a behind-the-scenes city bureaucrat — holding positions as the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, director of Department of Public Works and City Administrator.

In January 2011, the Board of Supervisors appointed Lee to serve as an interim mayor after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected to serve as California’s lieutenant governor.

Lee went on to win the election later that year and was re-elected in 2015 to his final four-year term in office, which concludes at the end of 2019.

In office, Lee helped build affordable housing, raise the minimum wage and house the homeless.

Lee turned around San Francisco’s local economy, which was struggling like other cities from the Great Recession. Lee ushered in a tech-friendly business climate, such as by enacting a tax break for Twitter in the Mid-Market area. His focus on jobs paid off as unemployment rates dropped to record lows.

Amid his successes, Lee faced criticism from San Francisco’s more-left leaning politicians and advocates for not doing more to alleviate the adverse impacts of a booming economy, soaring rents, increased evictions and displacement of long-time residents.

Recently, the mayor established a new city department focused on homeless residents, which appears to have success. He had also remained committed to his goal established in 2014 to create 30,000 new and rehabilitated homes available by 2020, of which a third would be set at below-market-rate rents.

“People are passionate about helping the homeless in The City and so was he,” said Sam Dodge, a former deputy director of homelessness. “In the long run, people are going to see the things he set into motion and how they are going to bear fruit. It takes time for some of these things.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener said the mayor served at a time of “an unprecedented housing shortage.”

“Ed never got the credit he deserved as arguably the most pro-housing mayor in the history of San Francisco, with a huge amount of affordable housing created or approved under his administration,” Wiener said in a statement.

Former Supervisor John Avalos, who was a political adversary of Lee, said Lee will be remembered for “how he managed cataclysmic forces of economic change which transformed The City and defined who got to live and work here.”

Avalos summed up the change: “A lot of new infrastructure. A lot of new buildings. A lot of new people, a booming population and a lot of people no longer here.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who often sparred with Lee over political policies, said, “I am going to miss Ed Lee.

“I have known him for 25 years,” Peskin said. “Even though we had our political differences, he was really fun to hang out with and our hearts go out to his wife and two children.”

He added, “San Francisco is a city that knows how. We are going to continue to have a city that is stable and united.”

San Francisco will fly its flags at half-staff for the next 30 days.

Lee is survived by his wife, Anita, and two daughters Brianna and Tania.

The Board of Supervisors is not expected to vote on appointing an interim mayor until it returns from winter break in January, at the earliest.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

Joshua Sabatini and Michael Barba
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Joshua Sabatini and Michael Barba

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