Ed Lee’s legacy, and the year that might have been

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Ever since Dec. 12, 2017, when Mayor Ed Lee died, San Francisco leaders have tried to pick up the pieces.

One year ago Wednesday, Board of Supervisors President London Breed stood before just two television cameras (and one columnist) at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on a lightly chilly, clear night, surrounded by fewer than a dozen politicians, and assumed her role as acting mayor.

I remember the unreality of that moment. The sense of being in a waking dream.

Lee had stood not five feet in front of me just hours before, at Ted’s Market in the South of Market neighborhood. He told me his favorite sandwich there was salami, and we enjoyed a laugh together about watching out for our waistlines.

His local support for a statewide recycling initiative, which he announced that day, faded with the man. So it would go for many initiatives.

That night, the carefully laid house of cards built of a thousand little plans shook and toppled. San Francisco’s leaders, the people who seek funding for our public housing, who reach their hands out to our homeless, who ensure our neediest children are taught, and that bread is on our tables — or, the people who are supposed to anyway — had to rethink, replan, and redo.

“I think like a lot of people, we didn’t really take the time to grieve,” said Tony Winnicker, Lee’s senior advisor.

Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa echoed similar sentiments. “It’s difficult for us to believe he’s gone,” he said.

Now, a year later, The City is set to roll out events all week to allow San Franciscans to process Lee’s loss.

Winnicker and a number of close Lee’s confidants spoke with me Friday to talk about his legacy, and San Francisco’s efforts to right itself in the wake of Lee’s passing due to heart failure at the age of 65. Only now are some of those confidants beginning to realize all the ways Lee’s death set San Francisco on a new path and all the things they miss most about the man he was.

Goals set, goals unattained
Many confidants of Lee’s agreed: Infrastructure is the legacy for which Lee is least appreciated publicly, but one that will impact San Francisco for decades to come.

Yes, as critics may point out, Lee’s rush to create jobs led to our tech boom and unintended consequences — and it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge I frequently critiqued him for that.

But as the crisis emerged, Lee pursued housing relentlessly, Kawa said, and that must also be acknowledged.

“He wanted to unite San Francisco around affordable housing,” Kawa said.

And that he did: In 2012 Lee led the landmark approval of the Housing Trust Fund, which will lead to the investment of $1.3 billion in affordable housing over the next 30 years towards 9,000 units of permanently affordable housing. He set a city goal to build or rehabilitate 30,000 units of housing by 2020, and worked with advocates and the Board of Supervisors to pass Proposition A in 2015 to fund $310 million in support of acquiring and rehabilitating housing. He increased funding for eviction protections from the beginning of his mayorship from $850,000 to roughly $7 million by the time of his death.

“Infrastructure is not sexy,” Winnicker said. “People don’t care as much about general obligation bonds (which fund projects) as they do about a lot of things people are passionate about in San Francisco.”

But those bonds Lee led himself, or which others led and he helped to champion, funded housing and more in San Francisco.

The list is extensive: a 2011 street repaving bond, a 2012 parks bond, a 2014 earthquake bond, a 2014 transportation bond, a 2015 affordable housing bond a 2016 public health facilities bond, a 2016 school district bond, and the recently passed 2018 seawall bond, all were ushered at some point by Lee.

Yet one major funding measure was supposed to be ushered in by Lee, but fell by the wayside after his death — a homelessness funding measure. Yes, Proposition C emerged from advocates after discussions around funding homelessness broke down, Winnicker told me.

“It was actually on Mayor Lee’s plate for 2018, a consensus homelessness measure,” he said. “We didn’t get that because he died, there was a mayor’s race, and the advocates said ‘we don’t want to wait.’”

For the homeless people who spend nights on the street in the cold, it’s probably best the advocates didn’t wait. But it also meant consensus only among those willing to take the political risk to push the tax of our city’s richest companies.

Enter the political sparring match between Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Breed, which cost her political capital along the way.

“I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived, there may have been a consensus measure,” Winnicker said. “That’s no critique of anyone who is here, just the politics of this year were,” and he paused, “different.”

Again, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Chinese community in flux

David Ho, a former lieutenant of the late Rose Pak and a political mover and shaker in his own right, said he misses Lee dearly. He noted Lee’s legacy included helping Chinatown “preserve its community and culture,” from funding for Portsmouth Square to aiding Central Subway businesses, Chinese Playground,and the Ping Yuen public housing projects.

“Rose two years ago, now Ed. It’s just been a stunner for Chinatown and the Chinese American community, losing two icons in such a short amount of time,” he said. “I think the community is still recovering.”

For years, Lee made sure the Asian community — not just in Chinatown — had a seat at the table, said Cally Wong, head of the API Council, which represents 50 nonprofit organizations aiding some 300,000 Asian Pacific-Islanders in San Francisco.

“He came from the nonprofit sector,” she said. “It takes someone from the community to ‘get it.’”

One person who didn’t necessarily “get it” was former Mayor Mark Farrell, who did not fund the expiring API nonprofits’ asks in his June budget. Breed restored that funding once she took office, but Wong said she’s watching closely to see how the Asian community will fare now that Lee is no longer in office.

She has to keep an eye out, or much-needed afterschool programs, senior housing programs, transitional youth programs, may be endangered in Japantown, the Bayview, the Tenderloin, the Richmond, and the Sunset.

“API Council is one of Mayor Lee’s legacies,” she said, “I think this will be the year to keep an eye on to see how the API community will move forward.”

Ed Lee the man
Whether it was before the public or behind closed doors, our mustachioed mayor was a wise-cracking man who maintained a sense of awe in The City he served.

Winnicker recalled a trip to the Central Subway tunnel with Lee, who looked, astonished, at the large boring machine that had drilled the future tunnel for Muni’s T-Third train. Lee grinned wide.

“He had sort of a — and you don’t see it much — like a sense of wonderment at big infrastructure projects,” Winnicker said.

Lee had zeal.

“He would walk by my office and I would see him every morning,” the normally jovial but steely Kawa told me, in soft tones. “He never failed to have that smile on his face. That smile. When I see pictures of him now, that amazing smile that he had, that’s who he was.”

Kawa knew Lee for a quarter-century, as long as Kawa worked in city government. “The job of mayor didn’t change him.”

To Winnicker, that meant an unflappable focus on the people of San Francisco. Even if you disagreed with Lee’s decisions, the place he came from when he made them was with those people in mind.

“I think it was both a strength and a weakness,” Winnicker said. “He did not make his decisions through a political frame, sometimes to his detriment.” Winnicker recalled one time, in particular, a freshman member of the Board of Supervisors had “sort of double-crossed him.” But, Winnicker said, there was an opportunity for “retribution.” Mayor Lee chose not to seek that revenge.

Winnicker recalled how Lee explained that choice: “I remember he said, ‘What would ‘they’ want us to do?’ I said, ‘They? Who’s they?’ He said, ‘The people who put us here. The people we work for.’”

The “they” were the voters, Winnicker said. The voters “grounded him.”

Lee would often reflect on those voters during his lone retreat from civic duty: Golf. No, this isn’t a Trump situation, far from it. Lee would wake up on Sundays and hit the links as early as 6 a.m. He’d wrap up by 10 a.m. to be available for weekend public events, I’m told.

Widely described as a “consensus mayor” who met with different communities, stakeholders, and even the mail-carriers to garner opinions, it may have been on the golf course where he allowed the many opinions to coalesce into a decision. It’s perhaps fitting then, that on Wednesday after the public gathers to remember Ed Lee, those in his inner-circle will gather for a round of golf to remember him.

I asked Winnicker and Kawa how they think San Franciscans should celebrate Lee, should they choose to.

Winnicker said San Franciscans should participate. “Give back to your city.”

Kawa agreed.

“Put a smile on your face, remember his smile,” he said, “and do something to help a San Franciscan have a better future.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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