Mayor Ed Lee, whose sudden death last week stunned San Francisco, was remembered Sunday during an elaborate ceremony in the historic rotunda at City Hall as a humble man with an “unparalleled” career in public service.
Dignitaries from all walks of life filled several hundred seats beneath the dome as violins sounded in the afternoon. This was a crowd where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom were known as Nancy, Dianne and Gavin. It was not only the who’s who of San Francisco, but California and the nation.
“In a world of noise,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, “Ed Lee was a real person.”
Lee, 65, died last Tuesday after suffering a heart attack at a grocery store near his home in Glen Park. He left behind his wife, Anita, and daughters Tania and Brianna. Standing alongside one another in the rotunda, his daughters shared anecdotes of Lee as a father who told silly jokes and forced them to paint over graffiti on the weekends.
“At age 15, waking up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to go paint over graffiti was pretty much the last thing that I wanted to do,” Brianna said. “But he didn’t give into my complaints. He told me to get up, go put on an orange vest, take a paintbrush, work to beautify some of San Francisco’s streets — and also there might be some burritos later.”
An estimated 1,600 people crowded into City Hall for the ceremony, according to the Mayor’s Office. The ceremony was so popular that an overflow room at the Main Public Library on Larkin Street filled to the brim with 300 attendees. Even more mourners gathered at the barricades outside City Hall.
There were few signs Sunday of the criticism Lee received over the years as the tech industry boomed and rents skyrocketed, resulting in the displacement of low-income and minority groups from San Francisco.
Someone scrawled “Shame Ed Lee” on the pavement in front of city Hall before the ceremony started, but the chalk was washed away before Lee’s family arrived. When the ceremony ended, a protester stood outside building carrying a sign that blamed Lee for the evictions of Latinos and lesbians from San Francisco.
“Working class folks screwed,” the sign read.
Inside the ceremony, tech investor Ron Conway, whose political contributions and friendship with the mayor have drawn scrutiny, sat next to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Benioff’s relationship with the mayor resulted in Salesforce donating millions to San Francisco public schools.
Those inside the rotunda also included U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the former district attorney of San Francisco, and a range of mayors from cities as far away as Denver. Former President Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton each sent a letter to Lee’s family offering their condolences.
During his speech, former Mayor Willie Brown told what he said was Lee’s last joke, which targeted President Donald Trump. Trump and Lee feuded over the last year over San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.
If Trump ends up being sentenced to serve time in federal prison, Brown began, “maybe we should see if we could get Alcatraz back in operation?”
Brown also shared the story of how Lee unwillingly became the first Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco in 2011, after more than two decades working in city government.
Brown said Lee was out of the country when then-Mayor Newsom won the election for lieutenant governor. Brown had to keep Lee in the dark until he finished wrangling with the Board of Supervisors for the six votes needed for Lee to become interim mayor.
“He really did not want the job,” Brown said.
But Lee became mayor and went on to win two elections for the seat in 2011 and 2015, even though he initially said he would not run for mayor. Remnants from that first election were in the building on Sunday.
Will.i.am, best known as a member of the pop group the Black Eyed Peas, attended the memorial. Will.i.am was featured alongside MC Hammer in Lee’s 2011 “2 Legit 2 Quit” campaign video that played up Lee’s mustache.
For his corny jokes, Newsom remembered the mayor as “someone who was uncool in some ways, but had friends like Willie Mays and Joe Montana — some of the coolest people on Earth.”
Montana attended the ceremony, as did baseball legend Barry Bonds. Tony Bennett penned a letter to the Lee family, referencing his famous song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
“Your golden sun will shine for me,” Bennett wrote, repeating the last lyric in the song. “And Mayor Lee was a golden sun.”
But Lee was not only remembered for his quirks. Feinstein traced Lee’s career from his first job for The City as a whistleblower complaint investigator in 1989 to his time as mayor. Lee’s roles included being city purchaser, head of the Human Rights Commission and director of the Department of Public Works.
“I am not aware of any civil servant, any elected official, who has served in as many leadership and management positions in this city,” Feinstein said. “Ed Lee’s 27 years of public service to San Francisco are truly compelling and they are also unique.”
Feinstein praised Lee for the adding 17,000 new or rehabilitated units to The City’s housing stock, leading San Francisco to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 27 percent and creating Navigation Centers to help house the homeless.
Lee’s daughters have set up a charitable fund to honor the late mayor. Contributions can be made payable to “The San Francisco Foundation – Edwin M. Lee Community Fund” and mailed to the San Francisco Foundation at 1 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA 94111.