San Francisco (AP) — Mayor Ed Lee, who oversaw a technology-driven economic boom in San Francisco that brought with it sky-high housing prices despite his lifelong commitment to economic equality, died suddenly on Dec. 12 at age 65.
A statement from Lee’s office said the city’s first Asian American mayor died at 1:11 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Lee was surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues.
No cause was given.
International District Emergency Center President Dicky Mar was classmates with Lee at Seattle’s Franklin High School. “Ed has always been a leader… of everything. He was an all around good guy,” said Mar. News of his childhood friend came as a “total shock.” Mar thought that Lee was on the cusp of political stardom — and had only just started.
Lee, the child of immigrants, was a staunch supporter of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy toward people who are in the country illegally.
Edwin Mah Lee was born May 5, 1952, in Seattle to Chinese immigrants who hailed from Toisan, a rural village in the southern province of Guangdong, China. His father was a cook and his mother a seamstress who worked hard to raise Lee and his five siblings in public housing.
“We learn modesty. We learn sacrifice. We learn to be humble from people who may have even less. But we learn how to fight and survive at the same time,” said Lee in an interview with KTVU in February 2017.
Lee graduated from Bowdoin College in 1974 and from the University of California at Berkeley law school in 1978, according to the mayor’s website. He worked as a housing activist and civil rights attorney in San Francisco before joining city government in 1989 as the city’s first investigator under the whistleblower ordinance.
He served as deputy of human relations, director of public works and city administrator before being tapped for the mayor’s job.
Upon hearing the news of Lee’s death, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said, “When I was elected, he was the first mayor to reach out to me. His enthusiasm for making his city and our world better were inspiring. In Seattle, we were fortunate to count him as our own as well and his loss is a loss for Seattle.”
Another childhood friend, Calvin Locke, agreed. “Ed was a fun guy who liked to laugh — it was great to have him around,” Locke told the Northwest Asian Weekly. He recalled the time he moved to California and how Lee helped him get his deposit back from a former landlord.
Back in San Francisco, supervisors and other public officials were stunned and saddened by Lee’s sudden death. They praised the low-key mustachioed mayor who was better known as a former civil rights lawyer and longtime city bureaucrat than a flashy politician.
“I am floored. I can’t believe he’s gone. I just held a press conference with Mayor Lee [on Dec. 11]… He was his normal friendly and jovial self,” state Sen. Scott Wiener told KTVU-TV.
“He wasn’t the flashiest guy in the world, but he worked hard and it was an honor to work with him.”
Former Mayor Willie Brown and the late political power broker Rose Pak talked Lee into filling out the rest of Gavin Newsom’s term when he was elected California’s lieutenant governor in 2010. Lee was appointed interim mayor by the Board of Supervisors in 2011 after professing no interest in taking on the job permanently.
Lee changed his mind about taking the job permanently and won a four-year term in 2011. He was re-elected in 2015.
Brown said Lee’s election showed non-politicians could win elective office.
“We won based on our political shenanigans and our political skillsets. He got elevated to our mayor-ship under our charter and got re-elected twice,” he said.
Detractors claimed Lee catered too much to Silicon Valley, citing his brokering of a tax break in 2011 to benefit Twitter as part of a remake of the city’s downtown. When Lee took office in January 2011, Zillow reports the median home value in San Francisco was more than $656,000. Today, it is more than $1.2 million.
In 2015, he ran against a slate of little-known candidates who criticized him as doing more for tech leaders than for poor people.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed became acting mayor. The 11-member Board of Supervisors will select a new mayor.
Flags were lowered at City Hall on Dec. 12. The last mayor to die in office was George Moscone, who was murdered by a disgruntled former Board of Supervisors member in 1978, leading to the ascension of then-Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein to mayor. Feinstein is now California’s senior U.S. senator.
Lee’s death now will likely upend the race to replace him, which had been scheduled for 2019.
Former state Sen. Mark Leno, a onetime member of the Board of Supervisors and longtime political figure, has already announced his candidacy.
A memorial celebration for Lee is scheduled for the afternoon of Dec. 17 in the San Francisco City Hall rotunda.