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The Caretaker

Ed Lee and the city he left behind.

Ed Lee 


The night that Edwin Mah Lee died, suddenly and without warning, at the too-young age of 65, the city was thrumming with industry and commerce. In the financial district, finishing touches were being applied to the 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce Tower, an unsubtle symbol of a soaring age. Beneath Stockton Street in Union Square, the Central Subway tunnels were inching toward their 2019 debut, while up above, an Astroturf-covered pedestrian plaza that has appeared, magically, for the last three Christmas seasons was jammed with holiday shoppers. Across from the two-year-old UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center, which the mayor once called his “legacy project,” was beginning to take shape. And in Mid-Market, the newly opened Proper Hotel beckoned the young and moneyed to a stretch of Market Street that was, seemingly yesterday, seedy and blighted.

But Mayor Lee wasn’t to be found anywhere near these cement-and-steel shrines to his city’s economic ascendancy. He was shopping for groceries with his wife, Anita, at a Safeway in Glen Park, where they had lived quietly for the past two decades, and raised their two daughters. While his most recent predecessors had been celebrated for their social prowess, their fine suits, their fabulous hair, and their “bold vision,” Ed Lee lived normally and modestly, right up until the moment, at around 10 p.m. on December 11, 2017, that he collapsed at the neighborhood market. From there, he and Anita were taken via ambulance to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital—itself reborn during the mayor’s tenure with the help of a $75 million gift from the city’s newest resident tech baron—where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. For the first time since the assassination of George Moscone in 1978, San Francisco had lost a sitting mayor. The former tenants’ rights activist who grew up in public housing in Seattle and went on to break the political glass ceiling for San Francisco’s Chinese American community was a decent man, all who knew him agreed, a kind and caring servant to the public.

In December 2013, San Francisco put this affable, corny-joke-cracking, thick-mustached mayor on the cover for the first time, with the words “Why Is Ed Lee So Happy?” It was a rhetorical question. Everyone knew why Lee looked so supremely satisfied. Though he began his first full term with a headwind of controversy, having flip-flopped on his promise not to run for election in 2011 after being appointed “caretaker” mayor by the Board of Supervisors, he had since enjoyed a smooth first two years in office. He’d ushered in the so-called Twitter tax break to help rejuvenate the Mid-Market area, a grim no-man’s-land that generations of mayors had failed to improve. He had landed the Golden State Warriors, whose spectacular new arena promised to finally make sterile, moribund Mission Bay a vibrant neighborhood. He would soon pass the largest affordable housing bond in city history. Above all, he had stewarded a supercharged local economy that was producing stunning levels of job growth and the largest development boom in decades.

The seeds of the mayor’s eventual waning popularity were sown in those halcyon days of his first administration: The same tech-driven economic boom that slashed San Francisco’s unemployment rate exacerbated the seemingly unstoppable housing crisis. At first Lee was mostly pounded by the left, as anti-eviction demonstrators picketed his home and office, anti-gentrification forces blockaded Google buses, and community activists angrily denounced the killing of men and women of color by San Francisco police officers. But as housing prices continued to skyrocket, traffic congestion became intolerable, and the homeless problem refused to go away—at the same time that the city was rolling out the red carpet for a costly Super Bowl—Lee’s political problems deepened. In the last couple of years, an epidemic of petty property crime, smashed car windows, and public injection-drug use inundated City Hall, souring large portions of the public on this otherwise hardworking and devoted mayor.

Lee’s own advisers now acknowledge that the mayor’s heart was never really in the political gamesmanship of City Hall, and they believe he suffered some bruising losses because of this ineptitude. He wasn’t a stirring public speaker, and the city at times felt rudderless and leaderless, especially in the two years since he won reelection, virtually unopposed, only to be booed by protesters at his final inauguration. He was a consensus builder, perhaps to a fault, which meant that trade-offs and incrementalism—especially when it came to housing development, where he excelled at building new affordable housing but struggled with the loss of existing units—were the order of the day.

But what his harshest critics never seemed willing to acknowledge was that Lee always, always wanted the city’s boom to benefit all of its residents. His passions—going all the way back to his activist roots at the Asian Law Caucus and his Mr. Fix-It days as the head of the Department of Public Works—revolved around strengthening infrastructure, improving public housing facilities, fixing worn-out streets, and spiffing up unfashionable and under-cared-for neighborhoods, from Chinatown to the Bayview. In a larger sense, he was a classic liberal in the finest San Francisco tradition, with a deep commitment to protecting the most vulnerable, including undocumented immigrants, for whom he fought fiercely, and service workers, for whom he delivered one of the highest minimum wages in the nation: $15 an hour, beginning this July. His efforts on behalf of the homeless, in particular his championing of the widely praised Navigation Centers, were unquestionable.

These are the issues that spoke to him, and these are the efforts that fueled his days as mayor. Of course, it wasn’t enough. It never could have been. But Ed Lee tried. Ed Lee cared. And right up until the moment of his passing, Ed Lee worked for all of us.



Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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