Before I became an editor at the San Francisco Examiner, I spent two years reporting on education, health and planning for the paper. I occasionally found myself face-to-face with Mayor Ed Lee and had the opportunity to ask him, and not his staff, about topics of importance to our readers.
A few times, it was in Lee’s office at Room 200 at City Hall, where he held media briefings. It was there that he announced he was pursuing a charter amendment for the November 2016 ballot that would require more below-market-rate housing in new residential developments.
Other times, it was out in the field. At a rent-controlled apartment building in the South of Market in February 2016, Lee shared news that The City helped purchase the building as part of a program to protect tenants and establish long-term affordable housing.
But one exchange with Lee still stands out in my mind.
On May 21, 2015, Lee came to the Tenderloin Community School to celebrate The City’s plans to allocate $140 million for the San Francisco Unified School District’s 2015-16 and 2016-17 fiscal year budgets. It was a 17 percent increase from The City’s contribution last fiscal year, and the gesture was indicative of Lee’s tenure during San Francisco’s transition following the Great Recession.
“In these times of economic prosperity, we’re going to share that with our school district,” Lee said at the time.
That day, the Examiner had published a cover story announcing the candidacy for mayor of Stuart Schuffman, one of our columnists who publishes under the moniker “Broke-Ass Stuart.” Lee was up for re-election that November, and Schuffman was one of a handful of candidates who threw their hat in the ring — but were not necessarily considered real threats to replace Lee.
Before I left to cover the news conference, my then-editor Michael Howerton asked me to get comment from Lee about Schuffman’s candidacy. After questions about the school district’s funding were answered, I hit “record” and shoved my phone in Lee’s direction.
“I also have to ask you, what do you think about your new opponent in the mayor’s race coming up that was announced in the Examiner today?” I inquired.
A TV reporter standing next to us chimed in. “Broke-Ass Stuart?”
“Oh, gee, gee!” Lee laughed.
Then, his smile disappeared.
“Of course, I’m welcoming of anyone who wants to take up this responsibility,” Lee began. “It’s a serious job. It’s one that I’ve taken a lot of pride in. But also I work hard at it.
“I may not have everybody’s answer. I hope that there are people who have a serious aspect to what they want to get done. Maybe there is a stream of seriousness to [Schuffman’s] effort. It shouldn’t just be what I haven’t done, [but] what can they really offer to be done.”
Lee continued, “I’ll match with anybody who wants to do that, because I told people at the beginning that you’ve got to demonstrate your love for this city. It just can’t be anti.”
I found that recording on my computer Wednesday, one day after Lee died unexpectedly of a heart attack early Tuesday morning.
Nothing came of that quote at the time of my story on the school district, but it feels appropriate to share with San Francisco today.
As Lee said, he may not have had everyone’s answer as mayor. But there’s no doubt he loved this city and serving and representing the people of San Francisco, and he will be missed.
Laura Dudnick is the managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner.