Ed Lee, San Francisco’s first Asian American mayor, died early on Dec. 12 at the age of 65.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants who was the first member of his family to attend college and eventually became the first Asian American to lead the city, died early Tuesday.
Former mayor Willie Brown told the San Francisco Examiner that Lee was shopping at his neighborhood Safeway when he suffered a heart attack. Lee died just after 1 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, his office said in a brief statement.
“It is with profound sadness and terrible grief that we confirm that Mayor Edwin M. Lee passed away,” the statement read, adding that “family, friends and colleagues were at his side.”
The 65-year-old Democrat — an affordable housing advocate who presided over a time of ballooning rents and explosive real estate prices in his city — was remembered by political leaders as a defender of civil rights and, according to Gov. Jerry Brown (D), “a true champion for working people.”
Lee, an activist lawyer before he began working for city agencies, was a strong proponent of what he called “aggressive measures on climate change” and had recently clashed with President Trump in declaring that San Francisco would remain an immigrant-friendly sanctuary city.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed is now acting mayor, city officials said as condolences poured in.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who served as the city’s mayor in the late 1970s and 1980s, called it “a very sad day for San Francisco and all of us who knew Ed.”
Feinstein said Lee “was an excellent mayor of a great but sometimes challenging city. His equanimity and quiet management style was effective and allowed him to solve problems as they occurred.”
Sen. Kalama Harris (D-Calif.) called Lee “a public servant who tackled every challenge with modesty, civility, and hard work. As the son of immigrants who became mayor of one of America’s largest cities, Ed broke down barriers and blazed a trail for future generations to follow. And at this inflection moment in our country when some have promoted hatred and division, Mayor Lee has been an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion.”
Harris added that “when he first ran for mayor, Ed campaigned on the message, ‘Ed Lee Gets It Done.’ For 65 remarkable years, he did.”
The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board remembered Lee as “a mayor who calmed S.F. City Hall.”
“For a man who entered City Hall’s Room 200 with no particular appetite for the rough and tumble of elective office, Ed Lee proved remarkably adept at navigating and bridging the divisions,” the Chronicle said. “He set a temperate tone for a city that desperately needed it.”
Edwin Mah Lee was born to immigrant parents who came to the United States from the Chinese province of Guandong and settled in Seattle. He told the Northwest Asian Weekly that he was the fifth of six children in a home where both parents worked — his father in local restaurants, his mother doing odd jobs around Seattle.
When Lee was 15, his father died of a heart attack, and Lee worked in restaurants to help support his family.
He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1974 and earned a law degree at the University of California at Berkeley, where he also became interested in politics.
Lee worked for the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus, advocating for immigrant rights and affordable housing. He later joined city government, leading the Human Rights Commission and the Department of Public Works, among other agencies.
He was serving as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s city administrator when he was appointed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to replace Newsom, who had resigned to become California’s lieutenant governor in January 2011.
More than a third of San Francisco’s 870,887 residents are Asian, according to census data, and Lee said his election in November of 2011 was a stride toward equality.
“I am able to make a link to the Asian communities,” he told Northwest Asian Weekly. “Being mayor helps them to know that they no longer are second-class citizens.”
Before the 2011 election, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “there are roughly 10,000 Lees in San Francisco, an expected boost for the mayor at the ballot box.” Lee beat a crowded field of 16 candidates, then coasted to reelection in 2015.
He became known as one of the most progressive mayors in the United States, and clashed with Trump over San Francisco’s designation as a sanctuary city. Under the policy — one of the most expansive in the country — local police won’t cooperate with federal immigration officials in all but the most extreme cases.
In January, an hour after Trump announced a federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Lee held a news conference at City Hall.
“I am here today to say we are still a sanctuary city,” he said, according to the Chronicle. “We stand by our sanctuary city because we want everybody to feel safe and utilize the services they deserve, including education and health care . . . It is my obligation to keep our city united, keep it strong . . . crime doesn’t know documentation. Disease doesn’t know documentation.”
The conservative news outlet Breitbart deemed Lee “somewhat controversial” for the stance, saying he stood by the policy “even after the killing of Kate Steinle by an illegal alien who had been deported five times already and had deliberately moved to the city to avoid deportation again.”
Less controversially, Lee “positioned himself as an advocate to attract and keep tech companies in the city,” according to TechCrunch. His aim was not simply to get tech companies to come to San Francisco but to “leverage the wealth of that industry to try to address the city’s problems.”