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United States

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee leaves behind city in turmoil

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 11:07pm

Under Mayor Ed Lee’s seven-year watch, San Francisco went from a city mired in recession to a technology-fuelled economic powerhouse where housing costs skyrocketed and the chasm between the wealthy and everyone else grew. Lee died on Tuesday at 65 after collapsing while grocery shopping.

He leaves behind a rapidly transforming city where the median home value is more than US$1.2 million and grumpy residents are unhappy with homelessness, clogged traffic and frequent auto break-ins.

Supporters touted his dedication to building new housing and sending out workers to clean up dirty streets in a city known for its entrenched homelessness. Critics said Lee, a Democrat, catered too much to tech companies, citing a 2011 tax break he brokered for Twitter as part of a remake of the city’s dilapidated downtown.

Still, many mourned the city’s first Asian-American mayor as a reluctant politician dedicated to civil service who was more comfortable working on details than on delivering the perfect political sound bite. No cause was given for his death but an autopsy was planned.

“He believed in a city where a poor kid from public housing could become mayor,” said acting San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

Ed Lee, San Francisco’s first mayor of Chinese descent, dies aged 65

“What mattered most to him always was helping his fellow San Franciscans, and occasionally delivering the almost perfectly timed corny joke.”

Local celebrities, sports figures, and national politicians sent condolences. California Governor Jerry Brown, attending a climate change conference in Paris, called Lee a gentleman.

“Very honest, very human, he was well liked by people who knew him,” Brown said. “People are shocked and surprised. My sympathies go out to his family and all the people of San Francisco.”

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and the late Chinatown political power broker Rose Pak talked Lee into filling out the rest of former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term when he was elected California’s lieutenant governor in 2010.

Lee, city administrator at the time, said he had no interest in taking on the role permanently. But he changed his mind and won a four-year term in 2011, beating 15 other contenders. He was re-elected in 2015, beating out five others.

Willie Brown said Lee showed that non-typical politicians could win elective office.

“At all times it was for the love of the city,” he said. “It was not self.”

The former mayor also praised Lee as the man who “stepped up and made it possible for Silicon Valley to almost relocate to our city”.

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

But that was a change not cheered by San Francisco’s more politically progressive faction. Members of that group had railed against his perceived lenience with holiday-stay rental platform Airbnb, which they say has exacerbated San Francisco’s already tight housing market. Lee vetoed a measure approved by city officials to crack down on short-term rental stays.

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
Ed Lee

When Lee took office in January 2011, Zillow reported the median home value in San Francisco was just over US$656,000. The figure has nearly doubled since then. The percentage of households earning at least US$100,000 increased from 38 per cent in 2011 to 45 per cent in 2016, according to the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau.

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she did not agree with Lee on corporate issues but was surprised to develop a great working relationship with him. They worked to open a new homeless centre in her district last summer.

“He got the urgency of the issue and was tough in making solutions happen quickly,” she said.

Lee battled with fellow Democrats on development issues, but was a staunch supporter of many of the liberal policies most associated with San Francisco – including higher minimum wages, marriage equality and sanctuary status for those living in the country illegally.

He reiterated his support for sanctuary policies last month after a Mexican man who had been repeatedly deported was acquitted of murder in the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in a case that sparked a national debate over illegal immigration. President Donald Trump repeatedly cited the case during his presidential campaign.

Edwin Mah Lee was born May 5, 1952, in Seattle to Chinese immigrants from Taishan, a rural village in China’s southern province of Guangdong. His father was a cook and his mother a seamstress. They raised 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,” Lee said in a television interview in February.

Lee graduated from Bowdoin College in 1974 and from the University of California, Berkeley law school in 1978. He worked as a housing activist and civil rights lawyer before joining city government in 1989 as a whistle-blower investigator.

Dr Susan Ehrlich of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital said Lee arrived at the hospital in critical condition soon after 10pm on Monday and died at 1.11am on Tuesday, following several hours of live-saving efforts.

Lee Houskeeper, a publicist and friend of the mayor, said Lee collapsed at a Safeway store while grocery shopping Monday night. A spokeswoman for Safeway stores, Wendy Gutshall, declined to confirm the report but said employees “will miss seeing him in the neighbourhood”.

Lee’s death now is likely to upend the race to replace him, which had been scheduled for 2019. Former state Senator Mark Leno, a one-time member of the Board of Supervisors and long-time political figure and Democrat, has already announced his candidacy.

Breed, also a Democrat, was also expected to seek the office.