SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, a former civil rights lawyer and the city’s first Chinese-American mayor, died unexpectedly of a heart attack early Tuesday morning. He was 65.
Lee collapsed Monday night while shopping at his local Safeway in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood. He was rushed to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where he died at 1:11 a.m. He is survived by his wife Anita and two daughters, Brianna and Tania.
Lee was a longtime city bureaucrat, a self-effacing, reluctant politician who had to be talked into filling the mayoral seat left vacant by Gavin Newsom when he became lieutenant governor. But he went on to win a four-year term in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015.
Newsom expressed his condolences on Twitter. “Absolutely heartbroken by Mayor Lee’s passing. SF has lost a selfless leader and dedicated public servant whose intellect, integrity, boundless optimism & contagious love elevated our City. Jen and I mourn the loss of a dear friend. Our prayers are with Anita, Brianna and Tania,” he said.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors president London Breed is now interim mayor. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the 11-member board will need to vote on whether to keep Breed in the position until an election can be held on June 5, 2018, to fill Lee’s term which expires in January 2020.
At a press conference Tuesday, Breed said, “When he passed, Mayor Lee was surrounded by his family, friends and the colleagues who loved him. Ed Lee lived a life of service cut short far too soon.”
Born in Seattle to immigrant parents in 1957, Lee grew up in public housing and attended Bowdoin College in Maine on a scholarship, graduating summa cum laude in 1974. He received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978.
After law school, Lee worked as managing attorney for the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus, where he represented public housing tenants fighting unsanitary living conditions at the Ping Yuen apartment complex. In 1989, Mayor Art Agnos appointed Lee to be San Francisco’s first investigator under a new whistleblower ordinance, and later made him deputy director of human relations.
In 1991, Lee became executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, a position he held under three different mayors. In 2000, he was appointed city administrator.
Early in his mayoral career, Lee became known as a staunch supporter of redevelopment, brokering the so-called “Twitter tax” break that enticed the social media giant to set up shop in the blighted segment of San Francisco’s downtown SOMA (South of Market) neighborhood, rather than outside the city as so many other tech companies had done.
Lee also fought hard to raise the city’s minimum wage and pushed for $1.5 billion in affordable housing development.
Breed said that when she first became a supervisor she and Lee bonded over public housing, where she also grew up.
“He always said he didn’t want folks like him and me to be known as public housing residents,” Breed said. “He wanted them to be known as San Franciscans. He believed in a city where a poor kid from public choosing to could grow up to become mayor.”
Lee later focused his efforts on fighting the city’s homelessness crisis, setting the goal of moving at least 8,000 people off the streets by the end of his second term. In 2016, he created the Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing, and expanded the city’s Navigation Center shelter program.
Lee had lately been swept up in the debate over sanctuary cities, standing behind San Francisco’s stance on immigration and its refusal to hand over undocumented immigrant detainees to the federal government. The city recently won a victory in federal court over the issue, with a federal judge permanently blocking President Donald Trump’s executive order cutting off funding to cities that refuse to share a person’s immigration status with immigration authorities.
“Being a sanctuary city is in our DNA,” Lee tweeted in November. “San Francisco will never be anything other than a sanctuary city.”
Lee’s sudden passing sent shockwaves throughout the city. Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement, “It is with great shock and sadness that we have lost Mayor Ed Lee, a tireless leader who always tried to work in the best interests of San Francisco. My deepest condolences go to Mayor Ed Lee’s wife and daughters, and to the city he embraced, led and loved.”
District Attorney George Gascon also issued a statement saying, “Today San Franciscans lost a lifelong public servant who was deeply committed to making our city a better place for everyone, from every walk of life. This is an unspeakable loss for San Franciscans, but the unimaginable grief that has settled on the Lee household as the holidays near is heartbreaking. Fabiola and I send our deepest condolences to the mayor’s family and to his staff at City Hall.”
Presiding Judge Teri Jackson of San Francisco Superior Court called Lee’s passing “a profoundly sad day for our city.” In a statement on behalf of the court’s judges, she said, “I extend our deepest sympathy to Mayor Lee’s family, friends and all who worked closely with him to serve San Franciscans with empathy, leadership and tireless dedication. As the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco, he leaves a legacy of inclusion through his administration’s efforts to fight for the rights of all San Franciscans to live, work and safely thrive in our diverse, dynamic city.”
Flags in the city will fly at half-staff for the next 30 days.
Speaking to reporters, Breed called Lee “the sweetest man many of us have ever known.”
“Ed was not a politician, he did not always deliver the best soundbite or carry the room with unspoken charisma,” Breed said. “Flash never mattered to him, disagreements never deterred him. He was humbled and determined, no matter the job he held. He was fair and collaborative no matter the heat of the moment.
“What mattered most to him always was helping his fellow San Franciscans, and occasionally delivering the almost perfectly-timed corny joke. Our mayor was a great man with a good heart, and everyone who had the pleasure of working with Mayor Ed Lee will miss him tremendously.”