Edwin Mah Lee died on Dec. 12 at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center after suffering a heart attack.
Lee, who preferred to be called “Ed,” was born in Seattle to immigrant parents and grew up in Beacon Hill.
He graduated from Berkeley Law in 1978. During his time at the school, Lee was well-recognized as a student committed to social justice, according to The Daily Californian. Edward Chen, federal district judge for the Northern District of California and also Lee’s former roommate at Berkeley Law, recalled that in law school, Lee spent as much time dedicated to community service as he did on his own schoolwork.
“The work that he did came from his heart and the desire that he had to help people and make things better,” Chen said. “It was not about personal power and trying to advance himself personally — it was about trying to advance the community, and I don’t think he ever lost sight of that.”
In 1977, Lee fought to prevent redistricting of a San Francisco senior housing unit primarily for Filipinos. The International Hotel was set for demolition as part of an expansion of the business district of San Francisco. However, the property was almost fully occupied, and the destruction would have done little but displace a large group of senior citizens.
“[Other protestors and I] chained our arms together and formed a circle around the property. It was my first experience with physical evictions. The police came in on horses in the middle of the night,” Lee told the Northwest Asian Weekly in a 2011 interview.
Lee was the managing attorney for the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, before working for the city government. Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, said, “[Lee] leaves [a] great legacy of service, of someone who was committed to serving the community in all the jobs he’s had.”
In 2014, Lee was inducted in the Franklin High School Hall of Fame. When he was nominated, it was former governor Gary Locke who introduced Lee. The two knew each other growing up and sang together in the Franklin Bel Canto Choir.
Lee was appointed mayor of San Francisco in 2011. Of the names tossed about as possible interim successors to Mayor Gavin Newsom, Lee’s seemed to emerge at the last minute. His appointment as the city’s first Asian American mayor was historic and unexpected.
When asked about what he would be able to bring to Asian American communities that previous mayors of San Francisco were not able to, Lee told the Northwest Asian Weekly, “I am able to make a link to the Asian communities. Being mayor helps them to know that they no longer are second-class citizens.”
In the same interview, Lee made a plea to the Asian youth of America, “Don’t limit yourself. This country has plenty of opportunities for Asians outside of the fields where [Asians] are normally viewed as excelling, such as math and science.”
Lee was a shining example of that. His contribution was his willingness to run for office, and breaking the bamboo ceiling. Initially, he didn’t want to run after his fill-in term. A role model indeed for public service.