Edwin Lee remembered fondly as S.F. mayor and activist

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee. photo courtesy of San Francisco Mayor’s Office

News of San Francisco Mayor Edwin Mah Lee’s death spread quickly early the morning of Dec. 12. Lee collapsed while shopping for groceries late Dec. 11 and was rushed to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital before he was pronounced dead at 1:11 a.m. He was 65.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein eulogized Lee during the Dec. 17 memorial at city hall attended by political giants, such as Sen. Kamala Harris and Hawai‘i’s Sen. Mazie Hirono, among other political leaders from across the nation. Guests included mayors of other major U.S. cities, as well as representatives of foreign governments.

Lee, born in Seattle to immigrant parents, is remembered for his humility and dedication to public service, but also as the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco and a former civil rights attorney for Asian Law Caucus.

Lee graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1974 and Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley in 1978, according to his biography on the city’s Website. He is survived by his wife Anita Lee and their daughters Brianna and Tania Lee.

According to a statement from Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Lee began working for the nonprofit organization in 1976 as a law clerk and eventually became a managing attorney before moving on to the city in 1989.

“We are proud to call Ed an alumnus,” Aarti Kohli, the organization’s executive director said in a statement. “Perhaps the greatest testament of his character lies in those instances when Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus disagreed with city policy. Despite the disagreement, the mayor’s support of ALC’s mission was unwavering.”

Donald Tamaki, who was executive director while Lee worked for Asian Law Caucus, said Lee’s work as an attorney helped inform his work as a city employee and mayor. Lee’s first major accomplishment as an attorney was helping to lead San Francisco Chinatown’s first rent strike against the Ping Yuen housing project run by the San Francisco Housing Authority, Tamaki said. He represented Chinatown seamstresses, who were working under sweatshop conditions, organize and demand fair wages.

FROM ADVOCATE TO PUBLIC SERVANT­— Mayor Edwin M. Lee began his career as a civil rights attorney helping San Franciscans organize tenant and labor unions. Some 35 years later, he would become the mayor of San Francisco whose tenure oversaw great expansion within the city’s tech industry as well as issues in gentrification and civil rights.
courtesy of Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus

“Ed’s legacy, as an example, was a new model of community lawyering, where lawyers could play a role in promoting, supporting or facilitating organizing,” Tamaki said. “Real social change, we believe, was as a result of empowerment.”

Tamaki said Asian Law Caucus focused on taking cases that could result in community organizing to empower its communities to prevent future abuses. The work Lee did as an attorney, Tamaki said, would eventually empower the Chinatown community to hold the political clout that it does today.

Tamaki added that Lee’s work as an attorney also informed his work as a civil servant and mayor. “He wasn’t just born a mayor. He wasn’t born into that job with good judgement and a moral compass and a sense of values,” Tamaki said. “I think all of that was developed by labor, laboring in the vineyards of doing community organizing and legal work.”

Lee left Asian Law Caucus in 1989 to help San Francisco implement its new whistle-blower ordinance under Mayor Art Agnos. He would eventually become the city’s chief administrator, the highest ranking non-elected position in the city in 2005.

“Like me, Ed grew up in public housing. The son of working class immigrants, he developed early on a profound sense of community, a commitment to helping others,” London Breed, acting mayor and president of the city’s board of supervisors, said Dec. 12. “His father was a veteran, and his mother a seamstress. They instilled in him a humility and selfless work ethic that he maintained throughout his entire life.”

Breed holds the position of acting mayor until a new mayor is elected to serve the remainder of Lee’s term, or if the board of supervisors decide to appoint someone else. The new mayor, to be elected in June of next year, will then serve the remainder of Lee’s term through Jan. 8, 2020.

As Breed had become the city’s first African American woman to become mayor, Lee was the city’s first mayor of Asian descent, also serving under extemporaneous circumstances when he assumed the job to serve the remainder of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term following his election as the lieutenant governor of California in 2011.

“He was born on May 5, 1952, almost 70 years to the day that the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, May 6, 1882,” Newsom said at the memorial. “What an extraordinary journey this city has been on. … What pride we all felt, what pride the Chinese community, the Asian community must have felt at that moment, after that history and all that hostility, … here he was, the first Chinese American mayor.”

Lee is also remembered by many for his accomplishments in office. He is credited with helping deal with the fallout of the 2008 great recession, along with ongoing issues with housing, homelessness and transportation within the city. Supporters and politicians alike noted Lee’s stance on human rights. He is known for his stalwart commitment to keeping San Francisco a sanctuary city in the face of growing xenophobia in United States, and for his role in supporting and accepting the “comfort women” memorial dedicated to World War II sex slaves, which was erected in Chinatown Sept. 22.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and wife Anita at the city’s 2016 Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. photo by William Lee

As for the Japanese American community, Lee helped advocate for the city’s Japantown, according to the Japantown Task Force, which noted that Lee listed the ethnic enclave as one of the first among 25 San Francisco neighborhoods as part of his Invest in Neighborhoods programs. In his last official appearance in Japantown Sept. 27, Lee signed the Japantown Community Benefit District paperwork under the Peace Pagoda and pledged the remediation of the Peace Plaza was a priority for the city.

Outside of San Francisco’s Asian American community, Breed said he was also “a superstar” in China and described him as “Beyoncé with a mustache” when they visited. Yet, she also said Lee remained humble, and said his greatest legacy was not his job as mayor, but the inspiration he gives to future political leaders.

“One of the great legacies of Ed’s life is that a new generation of Asian Americans now know that an Asian American can run and be successful in the highest office in this city,” Feinstein said.

During the memorial, Lee’s daughters also remembered their father for his sense of humor and his commitment to the city. The family announced they are starting the Edwin M. Lee Community Fund through the San Francisco Foundation.

“We hope to use it to fund causes that were important to him and us. Addressing homelessness, fighting discrimination, protecting immigrants, protecting the environment and increasing affordability for San Franciscans,” Tania Lee said during the service.

Donations can be sent to The San Francisco Foundation at http://sff.org/donors/become-a-donor/give/ or by check made payable to “The San Francisco Foundation – Edwin M. Lee Community Fund” mailed to: The San Francisco Foundation, One Embarcadero Center, Suite 1400, San Francisco, CA, 94111. For gifts of stocks or other assets contact Ruben Orduna at rorduna@sff.org or (415) 733-8507.

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