Tears and tributes after sudden death of San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, Chinese-American trailblazer

Doctors worked in vain for hours to save Lee, 65, who collapsed while grocery shopping and was known for his folksy style and corny jokes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 8:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 8:37am

Hundreds of city workers and community members have converged on San Francisco’s City Hall to mourn the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee and hear acting Mayor London Breed honour Lee.

They crowded on a balcony outside the mayor’s office on the second floor Tuesday overlooking the building’s main floor and swarmed upper floors as Breed gave a short speech honouring Lee as a sweet and humble man who she said never wanted to be a politician. Lee was the first Chinese-American to hold the job of mayor in what is one of the most ethnically Chinese cities in the US.

Elected officials wiped away tears and hugged.

Breed says Lee never gave great political sound bites when he spoke but occasionally delivered a perfectly timed corny joke.

A doctor who treated Lee said attempts to resuscitate Lee lasted for hours on Monday night after he collapsed while grocery shopping at a Safeway supermarket.

Dr Susan Ehrlich of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital said Lee arrived by ambulance in critical condition at about 10pm. He was declared dead at 1.11am on Monday. She said an autopsy will determine the cause of death.

Lee, who led the city during a development boom fuelled by unprecedented tech wealth, was 65.

Lee was first appointed in 2011 to replace Gavin Newsom, who was elected as California’s lieutenant governor, and subsequently ran for a full term later that year. He was re-elected in 2015.

Lee led San Francisco just as the tech boom began to take hold in the city. Unemployment plummeted, and the city saw a wave of development, symbolised by a new tallest building, the Salesforce Tower.

Under Lee, San Francisco saw a crop of new high-rise buildings, and the city gained enhanced status as the global capital of the tech industry.

But Lee also became a magnet for criticism as rents and property values soared and many residents of moderate means said they no longer could afford to live in the city.

In a city famous for its sophistication and activism, Lee cut a decidedly down-home figure, known for his folksy jokes and political consensus-building.

Lee and his six siblings grew up in a Seattle public housing complex before his father, a cook, and his mother, a garment worker, built a modest home. As a youth helping with deliveries from the family restaurant, he had listened to hostile customers berate his dad with anti-Chinese racial slurs.

“It was an awakening,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “‘Why do we as people take this?’”

As a young lawyer, he joined the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus, helping in 1978 to organise a rent strike by residents in Chinatown’s decrepit Ping Yuen public housing project after a young woman was raped and killed there.

In 1988, then-Mayor Art Agnos hired Lee to run a whistle-blower programme, followed by a stint heading the Human Rights Commission, where he pressed for fair hiring practices for women and minorities. In his next post, as city purchaser, he opened contracting doors to those same groups. Later, he became public works director and city administrator.

In a 2011 interview, Agnos described Lee as “charming, self-deprecating and competitive.”

Lee was not a natural politician – his temperament had long been of an affable low-key bureaucrat, known for his chunky moustache. As city administrator, he somehow sidestepped the city’s pitched battles between moderate liberals and more left-leaning progressives.

But he was pressed to leave his administrative job, first to become interim mayor and then – breaking a promise to not run for election – asking voters to elect him to a full term. Among those who pushed him to do so was former Mayor Willie Brown, the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, and then finally Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was said to have persuaded him that San Francisco needed him to steer clear of the paralysing battles between moderates and more liberal progressives that have marred recent administrations.

Lee easily won re-election two years ago. In 2015, voters also approved a US$310 million bond for affordable housing – the largest in San Francisco history – which he championed.

Lee’s election was a milestone for San Francisco’s influential Chinese-American population, many of whose ancestors came from China to San Francisco during the gold rush era but faced decades of ugly discrimination by both residents and the government. At the turn of the 20th century, the city shuttered all Chinese-owned businesses and quarantined and barricaded Chinatown.

Tributes poured in as news of Lee’s death spread.

“Ed 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,” Feinstein said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Lee as “a true gentleman of great warmth, positivity and kindness.”

State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who served on the Board of Supervisors until he was elected to the state Legislature a year ago, said he was “just floored” that Lee was gone; Wiener said he had just attended a news conference with Lee on Monday and said he “was his normal jovial and friendly self.”

“Ed served as mayor during a period of unprecedented growth in our city and an unprecedented housing shortage. Ed never got the credit he deserved as arguably the most pro-housing mayor in the history of San Francisco, with a huge amount of affordable housing created or approved under his administration,” Wiener said in a statement. “San Francisco has lost a great leader.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press