By Joshua Holland
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On the last Saturday of 2017, hundreds gathered at Franklin High School to celebrate the life of Edwin Mah Lee, beloved mayor of San Francisco, Franklin High graduate, and true product of the best Seattle has to offer. Lee passed away unexpectedly in San Francisco on Dec. 12, 2017.
The Seattle ceremony followed a larger ceremony held a few weeks earlier in San Francisco, where thousands of supporters, friends, and a who’s who of California politics gathered at the City Hall rotunda for the memorial service. It was truly a tribute to the kind of person Lee was in life.
Regardless of the time or day, Lee made time for people. Whether it was a nephew touring San Francisco, his mom visiting to see the Chinese New Year parade, or a community member dropping by to speak with him about a local issue, he always made time.
Relationships were important to Lee.
On one particular occasion, Seattle Deputy Mayor Michael Fong recalled being warmly welcomed by Lee into the mayor’s office with his family, while visiting San Francisco on vacation.
“He was always smiling and showed a genuine kindness in meeting my grandmother, uncle, and aunts,” said Fong. “For my grandmother in particular, there was an overwhelming sense of pride. For 30 years, they’d never stepped foot in a city hall. For once, it felt clear they felt a sense of belonging.”
Lee was the pride of many Asian and Chinese Americans. He was the first Asian American mayor of a truly major U.S. city. As mayor, Lee was committed to creating a welcoming atmosphere for Asian Americans and other minorities. He felt it was his responsibility to create a sense of belonging and hope for those who felt like second-class citizens in their own city and country.
Lee cared deeply about San Francisco and Seattle. While he spent many years in San Francisco, he was very proud of his Seattle roots. He visited his family and mother frequently.
“Ed never forgot where he came from. Connection to family and longtime friends were very important to him,” said Linna Kitamura, Lee’s sister.
“He would always ask when visiting to drive by our old house on Beacon Hill where we grew up and Franklin High School because those were his roots. He’d also ask how mom is doing and would ensure she was in good hands.”
As mayor of San Francisco, Lee was universally credited for dramatically helping to reshape the city. When he took office in 2012, San Francisco was reeling from the Great Recession. Unemployment was at 10 percent, and many companies were fleeing the city.
While in office, Lee’s administration oversaw the creation of thousands of new jobs, unemployment became almost nonexistent, and companies set up shop in once blighted areas — helping transform San Francisco into the high tech capital it is today. Many Bay Area civic leaders often quipped, “Silicon Valley moved north because of Lee.”
Prior to becoming mayor, Lee was the city administrator, the public sector equivalent to a chief operating officer. The position provided him the ability to direct large purchasing dollars to support small minority business. In this role, he gladly worked behind the scenes to make big impacts on communities.
Lee didn’t want to become mayor initially. He had to be convinced to submit his name to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after Mayor Gavin Newsom became Lieutenant Governor of California. After he was elected, Lee was convinced by community groups to run for his first full term. Ultimately, what convinced Lee wasn’t the power or status the position offered, it was the opportunity to serve his community in a more profound way.
“From a young age, my brother recognized the inequalities people face and the struggles people have, and he wanted to change that for a lot of people,” said Kitamura. “It was his mission to make lives better for other people.”
As one of his brothers recalled, Lee was fond of working with his counterparts in other cities to forge a progressive agenda to deal with problems and challenges that large U.S. cities face. His family’s beginnings in public housing made him particularly sensitive and aware of the issues surrounding housing and homelessness. He created San Francisco’s first department on homelessness and vowed to build more housing for low-income people.
“Throughout his career and even after he became mayor of San Francisco, Lee remained the same Lee from Seattle that his friends and family have come to love,” said former Governor Gary Locke, who also attended Franklin High. “He was humble, warm hearted, hardworking, compassionate, and honest.”
Lee’s family has setup the Ed M. Lee Community Fund in hopes of carrying on his memory and continuing to support the causes that he loved. For more information, go to edlee.org.
Joshua can be reached at email@example.com.