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"But He's Not a Politician!"
Chris A. Smith | Photo: Jim Hughes | November 28, 2013
Mayor Ed Lee wasn't supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.
When Ed Lee plays Ping-Pong, he doesn’t hit too hard or move too fast. His game, like his management style, has a metronomic, steady-as-she-goes solidity. On this late-summer morning, he’s playing a few points inside a conference room at the Chinese Culture Center in Chinatown to kick off the Ping-Pong tournament that he founded three years ago.
A succession of teenagers play a point or two against the mayor, who wears a yellow event T-shirt over his dress shirt. Back and forth, back and forth. Then, with a flick of the mayoral wrist, the ball jumps over the net and dies, unreturnable. Lee lets out an explosive laugh— three parts giggle to one part scream—and sets his paddle down. “Some serious players here!” he shouts to the throng. Pak watches from the sidelines. “He’s good,” she says. “But he doesn’t have time to practice.”
The mayor approaches Ping-Pong the same way he does politics: with extreme deliberation. As his friend Phil Chin, a Chinatown activist and former city employee, puts it, “Ed is like the tortoise that wins the race.” Lee, 61, was born to immigrant parents in Seattle, the fourth of six kids. His father was a cook, his mother a seamstress. Money was tight: The family lived in public housing, and they couldn’t always afford Christmas presents. Lee was a good student, though, and won a scholarship to Bowdoin, a liberal arts college in Maine, where he majored in government and legal studies. As one of a handful of Chinese Americans on campus, he was an oddity. Sometimes, as a joke, he told people that he was Bruce Lee’s brother.
After graduation, Lee moved back west to get his law degree at UC Berkeley. He started interning at the Asian Law Caucus, a group focused on Asian-American civil rights, and fell in with a circle of activists that included Pak, a Chronicle reporter who would later become Chinatown’s all-around fixer and fundraiser, and the CCDC’s Gordon Chin. The goal, Pak says, was to improve the lives of Chinatown’s residents, who had been discriminated against for more than a century. “We had to say, ‘Wait a minute. We are taxpayers, we are equal citizens. Our government owes it to us.’”
They all became close friends. There were barbecues and Thanksgiving dinners, touch football and golf. It’s not obvious from looking at him, but Lee is a good athlete. The second time that he played golf—showing up at an exclusive Tahoe club in bathing trunks and a faded United Farm Workers T-shirt given to him by Cesar Chavez—he made an eagle. He was a tenacious defender on the court and a formidable quarterback. “Ed had the strongest arm of any of us,” Gordon Chin says. “That dude can throw.”
Lee spent a decade at the Law Caucus, and he filed a lot of lawsuits. He sued the San Francisco Police Department over height requirements that excluded most Asian candidates; he sued the city's fire department for racial hazing; and he sued the family associations, Chinatown’s traditional bosses, over development projects that would have bulldozed the neighborhood’s past. As lefty firebrands go, though, Lee was a very polite one. No matter how contentious the subject, says Dale Minami, a trailblazing civil rights attorney and cofounder of the Asian Law Caucus, “he was able to make his points without rancor, without personal attacks.”
Most famously, Lee faced off against the city over conditions in Ping Yuen (aka the Pings), the neighborhood’s largest public housing complex. The six-story Tranquil Garden was a scary place, its elevators broken, its unlit hallways infested with thugs. But its residents, most of them non–English speakers, believed that they had no recourse. Lee sued the San Francisco Housing Authority and helped launch the first rent strike in Chinatown. During hundreds of meetings, he guided tenants through the legal process. He also led the negotiations with the city, which ultimately caved and repaired the Pings. It was a political education, Gordon Chin says. “He learned what buttons to push.”
By the late ’80s, Lee was married—his wife, Anita, is a homemaker—and had two daughters, but he was making only $20,000 a year on his activist salary. When then-mayor Art Agnos tapped him to head up the city’s new whistle-blower agency—a reward for helping get out the Chinese vote in Agnos’s winning campaign—Lee was torn. He loved his work. But he took the job.
Gradually, Lee climbed the bureaucratic ladder. In 1991, he became director of the Human Rights Commission, where he instituted policies for minority hiring that required city departments to get clearance from his office. Minority contracting—in construction and printing, for example—shot up. Phil Chin says, “Some of the first Asian contractors got in because of Ed.”
In 1996, Pak introduced Lee to Willie Brown, and the new mayor, recently descended from Sacramento, brought Lee into his famously capacious political circle. He appointed Lee Director of City Purchasing, handling all municipal contracts, then promoted him in 2000 to head the Department of Public Works, overseeing city upkeep—the filling of potholes, the cleaning of municipal buildings, and the trimming of trees. Five years later, Gavin Newsom elevated Lee to city administrator, where he made the daily nuts-and-bolts decisions that mayors are too busy to deal with. By now, Lee had a full-spectrum view of city government. The onetime outsider had become a full-fledged member of the San Francisco deep state.
Lee might have finished his career in relative anonymity, a hyperconnected insider who was all but unknown to the wider city. But in 2010, Newsom won his race for California lieutenant governor. Suddenly, San Francisco needed someone to complete his term. That’s when the “city family,” as Lee sometimes refers to our political establishment, came calling.
At the urging of Brown, Pak, Newsom, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Board of Supervisors tapped Lee to be caretaker mayor, and he took office in early 2011, having pledged not to run in that November’s mayoral election. A few months later, some of those same people persuaded Lee to change his mind and run for a full term. Lee’s opponents, some of whom had voted to appoint him with the understanding that he’d just keep the seat warm, charged him with flip-flopping and accused his backers of campaign violations. It hardly mattered. Lee won with almost 60 percent of the vote, an electoral juggernaut built on economic anxiety and mustache jokes.