“My dad was a behind-the-scenes guy … when he decided to run, it was one of the greatest decisions he made,” said Tania Lee, speaking with equal parts sadness and pride in the one-hour documentary about her father, Ed Lee, the 43rd mayor of San Francisco, produced, directed, edited and narrated by former KPIX sportscaster Rick Quan.
A project of the Chinese American Historical Society, it was clear that the objective of the documentary, simply titled “Mayor Ed Lee,” was to present an inspirational account of an Asian American breaking the glass ceiling in San Francisco, and Quan achieved that goal through a series of interviews all evoking deep respect for the mayor of The City, who died in office in December 2017.
Quan met the mayor for the first time when he was emceeing a Chinese American banquet dinner at which the mayor was present. He recalled his feelings at the time: “I just think I felt a certain pride that another Asian is ‘a first’ in our City’s history,” Quan told me. From then on, Quan and Lee bumped into each other frequently and their relationship slowly grew. “I did sports and he recognized I was a pioneer in my own way,” he remarked in answer to the question of what brought the two of them together. Quan is the first Chinese American sportscaster as well as the first Chinese American male anchor.
When thinking about how best to approach the subject of Ed Lee, Quan read as many stories as possible about the mayor, and talked to members of the Lee family in order to understand how best to frame the story timeline and build a coherent narrative.
The result is a character sketch of Edwin Lee that reflects the director’s own absorptions, and becomes engaging and intriguing, despite being familiar.
Ed Lee, born to Chinese American immigrants, had a hard-scrabble childhood, growing up in housing projects in the working-class neighborhood of Beacon Hill in Seattle. In a house crowded with five siblings, Lee often found the bathroom to be “his place of sanctuary,” according to his mother. He found his religious grounding by attending Faith Bible Church on Sundays and his social and cultural persuasions within his own family environment.
Perhaps not that surprisingly, Lee was unusually competitive and managed to channel this tendency through the numerous athletic programs that he participated in, including basketball and tennis. Later, this reflected in the emphasis he put on the sports culture of The City. He often rode along on championship parades, be it the Warriors or the World Series, and paved the path for the Chase Center in San Francisco to be the future home of the Golden State Warriors.
Ed Lee was the first in his family to earn a four-year scholarship to college. He attended Bowdoin College in Maine, “an almost all-white liberal arts college,” Quan narrated, and the small college setting “allowed him to engage academically.” There were very few Asian students at Bowdoin, and Lee was often asked how he made it to college, to which he would laughingly allude to a background in martial arts, a tongue-in-cheek reference to his famous Asian last name.
A Bowdoin college professor interviewed for the documentary described Lee as having “intellectual curiosity,” and a “quiet understated brilliance.”
Lee went on to study law at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked at the Asian Law Caucus, where he gathered a deeper understanding of housing issues as he fought for the rights of his clients.
Ed Lee made his way through several City departments before becoming the interim mayor when Gavin Newsom left the post. As the former mayor Honorable Willie Brown, Jr. put it: there have been many historic rises to power, but “none more dramatic than Ed Lee’s ascendancy to one of America’s most significant cities: San Francisco.”
Many people who appear in the documentary were his early supporters, including philanthropist and angel investor, Ron Conway, who told Lee “you know how to get things done, you should run. If you run, I’ll work my tail off to get you elected.” And Conway did, and Lee was elected. But it was Senator Hillary Clinton’s warm endorsement that added a surprise element to the one-hour film. For those wondering how to make the right choice, Clinton suggested asking the question “what would Ed Lee do?”
“We have not had many role models in politics,” said Quan in answer to an audience question of why there aren’t more Asians in politics. This question delved into the heart of the frustration that many Asians experience: In a city with about one-third of the population being Asian, why weren’t there more Asians in local government? As the documentary reiterates, it’s the election of Edwin Mah Lee that emboldened Asian American political presence in the city of San Francisco.
Whether you believe that Mayor Ed Lee did much to improve the landscape of San Francisco by inviting technology giants into the city, reducing unemployment, raising the level of income and working to improve housing opportunities for many; or you believe that Mayor Ed Lee destroyed the framework of San Francisco by becoming a stooge for the burgeoning technology industry, it is indisputable that Mayor Ed Lee was a funny, hard-working, humble and compassionate man, who loved San Francisco.
With this documentary, Quan wisely focused the looking glass on Ed Lee, the person who became the mayor, and the result is both absorbing and authentic.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan