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"But He's Not a Politician!"

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.

San Francisco mayor Ed Lee

 Mayor Ed Lee, photographed at San Francisco City Hall on October 28.


This profile of Mayor Ed Lee, who passed away unexpectedly on the morning of December 12, 2017, was originally published as the cover story of
San Francisco's December 2013 Power Issue. 

 

Midmorning at a building site on the edge of Chinatown. The fog is burning off, the earthmovers stilled. Mayor Ed Lee is here, tending to the ceremonies of civic progress: the groundbreaking of a 75-unit housing project for some of San Francisco’s poorest families. Hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his baggy suit jacket, he peers into the churned-up dirt behind the podium.

This is Lee’s home turf. Before he became mayor, before he spent two decades as a city bureaucrat, he worked here as a civil rights lawyer. The audience is composed mostly of activists and nonprofit workers, many of them old friends and political allies. Rose Pak, Chinatown kingmaker, sits in the front row near Gordon Chin, the now-retired cofounder of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), which builds most of the affordable housing in the city’s northeast. Lee receives a hype man’s introduction. “He’s a brother, he’s a friend, he’s the mayor, but he’s not a politician!” the MC half shouts into the microphone. “This is good stuff, man! We should celebrate!”

In a brief speech, the mayor predicts that the city will become a national model for affordable housing construction. “This is just a beginning,” he says. Behind him stand nine shovels, their blades spotless and ready for photo ops, pincushioned into a mound of dirt. Grabbing one, Lee asks the photographers, “You want the construction face?” He grins big, shovel frozen in midair.

The mayor’s next event is at Pier 9, a recently spiffed-up patch of waterfront a few blocks down the hill. He has come to toast the expansion of Autodesk, a company that makes software for, among others, researchers in 3-D printing and biotech. It’s a different scene down here: all sleek glass, steel, and the ambient hum of raw computing power. Waiters circulate with sparkling water and ceviche. The only overlap with the Chinatown event is the mayor himself—yet Lee’s role is different here, more pom-pom-shaking cheerleader than conquering hero. He makes a few standard-issue Ed Lee jokes, including one about cloning his mustache with a 3-D printer that gets an amiable guffaw from the crowd. Mostly, though, he praises Autodesk—and the ever-expanding tech industry that, he says, is making San Francisco the “innovation capital of the world.”

As a public speaker, the mayor displays a cavalier approach to sentence structure and word usage. “This is the beginning of redefining manufacturing,” he says, the words tumbling out as if they had been stored under pressure and shaken before their release. “Not only are these machines and tools gonna be used here, exposing people to a new way of manufacturing and making things. Gonna be another added thing to the makers’ movement that we are wanting to converse in San Francisco.”

Undeterred by the syntax, the audience bursts into applause. Beyond the pier, the skyline bristles with construction cranes shimmering in the noonday haze. From Mission Bay to mid-Market, Dogpatch to SoMa, the drivers of this new economy—programmers and bioscientists and VCs and engineers—are feverishly at work. Squint hard enough, and you can almost see San Francisco’s future.

Afterward, as the mayor’s Chevy Volt spins off toward his next engagement, I find myself thinking about these back-to-back events. Together, they represent the alpha and omega of our current moment: the city’s white-hot, tech-fueled economy and the housing affordability crisis that it has exacerbated.

When Lee took office nearly three years ago, San Francisco was struggling with the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Though the city wasn’t nearly as hard-hit as the rest of the country, unemployment was close to 10 percent and home foreclosures had doubled over the previous year. With an intensity bordering on mania, Lee pushed for business-friendly legislation—with a heavy emphasis on tech—and stumped for new investment. Today, through some alchemy of good policy and good fortune, unemployment is below 6 percent. Between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012, San Francisco grew faster than any other large county in America, adding more than 30,000 jobs and spurring the biggest building boom in decades. And the mayor, who keeps a running tally of construction cranes (26 at last count), shows no sign of letting up. At a recent appearance before a ballroom full of developers at the Westin St. Francis, he assured the crowd, “I don’t ever want to signal to you that you’re not welcome in this city.”

In his quest to boost San Francisco’s economy, Lee has benefited from an unusually tranquil political climate. Taking the stage after progressive fire-breathers like Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin were termed out of the Board of Supervisors, Lee and his jobs message resonated with voters more worried about the economy than about runaway development. The current board, meanwhile, is more inclined to work with him than to fight him—a change from the trench warfare that dogged the administrations of Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown. His relationships with even his most vocal progressive opponents—District 11 supervisor John Avalos and District 9 supervisor David Campos—are at least civil and occasionally collaborative. The mayor has also made his own luck with a consensus-driven approach that has created space for agreement across political lines: Last year, for example, he passed one of the largest affordable housing measures in city history.

But a lack of animus doesn’t mean that everyone is happy in San Francisco. This boom, like the last one, has a pronounced downside. Apartment rents increased by 13 percent from mid-2011 to mid-2012, and they are up 10 percent over the past year. According to a recent study, a minimum-wage employee would need to work 3.4 jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Excelsior—and 7.4 jobs for one in SoMa. Owner move-in evictions, meanwhile, are up 81 percent this year. And no wonder: As of July, home prices had risen by 17 percent in the previous year.

And, of course, it’s not just low-income San Franciscans who are being priced out of the city. According to Trulia, only 14 percent of homes for sale this October were affordable for the middle class, down from 24 percent a year earlier. To the multitudes who feel that the city they know is slipping away, it seems like Lee’s tech-friendly actions, from his tax breaks for mid-Market companies to his all-purpose boosterism, are just hastening the end.

Calvin Welch, a progressive housing activist and a veteran of the city’s development wars, says that Lee’s activist history initially gave him hope. The affordable housing trust fund instated last year was a good start, Welch tells me, but it’s been all downhill from there—“just this constant pimping for high tech.” He cites the eye-popping statistic that 30 percent of homes sold in San Francisco in the first four months of 2013 were bought for cash. “But it’s like it doesn’t register with Lee, like it’s all positive, nothing negative,” he says. “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting forced out. This guy doesn’t get it about inequality.”

The mayor, critics say, isn’t equipped to manage the consequences of the boom. He is a captive of the system that cultivated him—and of its most powerful players, from tech moguls like Ron Conway to traditional power brokers like Pak and Brown. Though Lee was once a civil rights lawyer, he’s spent most of his career working in city government. He is a creature of the bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are rarely known for their big–picture vision—or their empathy. “We need leadership animated by moral imagination about what the city could be,” says Vincent Pan, executive director of the nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action. “That’s not the kind of thing one gets training for as city administrator.”

At the Chinatown building site, Lee acknowledges the problems presented by the overheated economy. “We need to continue to make sure this is the city for the 100 percent,” he says. He uses this line all the time, and it points to his central challenge—and, ultimately, to his legacy. As the mayor nears the halfway mark of his first term, the question is: Can he keep his promise?

 

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.

 

It’s not easy to score an audience with the mayor. My efforts include a number of false starts, as dates and times are chosen by his office and then discarded. Finally, on a windless September afternoon, I get the call. I find the mayor in his City Hall office, seated behind a vast wooden desk littered with manila folders.

As an icebreaker, I ask Lee about an anecdote I heard from his public works days. One night, the story goes, Lee went out with a cleanup crew after a storm and was nearly swept away by floodwaters on Junipero Serra Boulevard. He responds with an eight-minute disquisition on the art and science of unclogging storm drains. One of the lanes, he says, was waist deep in water, so he and his crew waded in, using their long wooden “jabbers” to poke into the drains. “It drained so quickly that I was hanging on to a sign or something in order not to get swept in,” he remembers. DPW, he claims, now clears the trouble spots before the rainy season begins.

For a moment, I fear that Lee is going to filibuster me with a primer on sewer maintenance. Then I realize the value of the discussion: It’s a window into the mayor’s technocratic soul. He has enjoyed a remarkable run since his appointment, cutting a path straight down the political middle. There have, of course, been a few setbacks. His dalliance with stop-and-frisk policing—in which cops can stop anyone whom they deem suspicious—died a quick, lonesome death. Many faulted Lee for dithering in his response to the San Francisco Housing Authority’s meltdown, which resulted earlier this year in the firing of its scandal-plagued chief, Henry Alvarez. (The Mayor’s Office is embarking on a complete overhaul of the agency.) The carnivalesque Ross Mirkarimi affair ended with the sheriff still in office and the mayor licking his wounds. And, most recently, voters resoundingly rejected two referendums to allow construction of the 8 Washington development. Lee had campaigned prodigiously in support of the propositions, and their defeat was seen widely as a loss for him.

Mostly, though, Lee has moved from one success to the next, enlisting a collaborative, low-drama approach that contrasts sharply with the divisive style of his predecessors. In keeping with his jobs mantra, many of his wins have been business-oriented, occasionally gilded with a progressive flourish. He helped strike a pension reform deal between the city’s labor unions and the Board of Supervisors, shoring up San Francisco’s finances against ballooning city employee pension costs. And then there’s the so-called Twitter tax break for companies that move to the blighted mid-Market corridor. Critics have decried the measure as corporate welfare—and it is, to the tune of $1.9 million last year—but new businesses, from Dolby to Spotify to a slew of new restaurants, shops, and hotels, are beginning to transform the neighborhood in accordance with Lee’s goals.

Lee’s soft-pedaling style has borne fruit in other ways as well. Last year, the mayor sold the business community—and, more important, the voters—on a change in the payroll tax intended to encourage new hiring. His original proposal, supported by tech titan Ron Conway, would have made the change revenue neutral, meaning that the new tax regime would have brought in no more money than the old one. After prodding from progressives on the Board of Supervisors—a dynamic that has been repeated on a number of issues—Lee changed his mind and helped persuade the old-line Chamber of Commerce businesses to agree to a tax formula that tacked on an extra $13 million annually for affordable and middle-income housing.

The deal that established the city’s permanent affordable housing trust fund illustrates the Lee method in its ideal form. When California governor Jerry Brown abolished the state’s redevelopment program in 2011, he eliminated, with one signature, San Francisco’s most reliable source of affordable housing money. In response, Lee convened a group of more than 50 policy wonks, developers, and affordable housing advocates to hash out a solution. Over the course of months, they met in a large conference room, often breaking out into smaller groups to tackle specific questions.

This assemblage was remarkably diverse, taking in everyone from Oz Erickson, founder of Emerald Fund (one of the largest market-rate developers in the city), to Calvin Welch, the progressive housing activist. The two men have a Hatfield and McCoy relationship, but they describe the process in nearly identical terms. Erickson says, “[Lee] assembled everybody who knew anything about housing. A lot of them didn’t normally talk to each other.” Welch, no fan of the mayor, nevertheless praises his willingness to step in at key points in the negotiations to break logjams.

The result was a fund that promises to funnel $1.5 billion into affordable housing over the next 30 years through a variety of existing tax measures and a new business license fee. “People always say they want everyone at the table, right? That’s the standard line,” says Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who has been pushing for more low-income housing since the ’80s. “Well, the mayor really listened.”

Lee’s collaborative approach also appears to be reflected in his management style. A City Hall insider tells me that in meetings, it can be difficult to ascertain where the mayor stands on many issues. The insider, who is not particularly critical of Lee overall, thinks that it’s because the mayor “doesn’t have really strong opinions” on most things. “He doesn’t change [with] the weather the way Newsom did,” the staffer says. Others say that that’s just Ed Lee being Ed Lee. As Sam Lauter, a lobbyist who has known Lee since the ’80s, puts it, “He’s not going to stand up and say, ‘It’s my way or get out of the room.’”

Indeed, few insiders recall ever having heard the mayor raise his voice in anger. This may be because he’s truly non-confrontational; but it also could be because he’s outsourced much of the unpleasantness to his deputies, foremost among them his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, a veteran of both the Brown and Newsom administrations. Unlike Lee, Kawa doesn’t hesitate to bring the hammer down. “If you’re getting dragged into the 200 suite for a come-to-Jesus moment,” a former City Hall staffer confirms, “it’s gonna be in Steve’s office. Not the mayor’s.”

When I ask Kawa about his reputation for playing bad cop to Ed Lee’s good cop, the deputy is succinct. “I do my job,” he says in his strong Massachusetts accent. “We all have roles to play.”

 

Of the more than two dozen people to whom I spoke about Lee, few were willing to criticize the mayor on the record. After all, almost everyone close enough to City Hall to know its secrets needs to work with Lee in some way. And the mayor remains enormously popular—he had a 65 percent favorability rating among likely voters in a poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce this spring. Why get on the bad side of a guy who might be in office until 2019?

People did remind me that despite Lee’s Boy Scout image, the serial scandals of the Brown years touched him on occasion. In 1999, critics accused Lee of granting Recology, the city’s garbage contractor (then called Nor-Cal), an astronomical rate increase as a reward for political donations to Brown. The following year, the Examiner reported that the FBI suspected a Brown campaign donor named Charlie Walker of fronting for a white-owned trucking company to help it claim minority contracts. In 1996, shortly after Brown’s election, Lee had certified a contract for the firm despite clear evidence that the company wasn’t minority-owned. Lee denied that Brown ordered him to certify the company, and the story seemed to end there. No charges were filed against either Brown or Lee.

Then there were the petty scandals that peppered the mayor’s 2011 campaign run. Employees of Recology were discovered illegally gathering signatures for the mayor, allegedly at Pak’s urging (she denied it); an airport shuttle company was caught laundering checks; and Lee volunteers violated campaign laws, his opponents charged, by filling out ballots for Chinatown seniors. The mayor was never implicated in any of it—but past is prologue, his enemies say.

Critics also talk about the influence of players like Brown, Pak, and Conway. Former District 3 supervisor Aaron Peskin puts it bluntly. “Ed Lee is not his own man,” he says. “It’s a Wizard of Oz situation—the only question is if or when somebody’s gonna pull back that curtain.”

Peskin has a variety of policies in mind when he invokes these names. There is Lee’s stumping for 8 Washington, the doomed luxury condo project on the Embarcadero that Pak, Newsom, and many others in the political establishment supported. There is also Lee’s enthusiasm for the Central Subway—long sought by both Pak and Brown—which will extend the Muni underground through Chinatown at a cost of $1.6 billion. Opponents denounce it as absurdly overpriced, inefficient, and unnecessary.

What seems to anger critics most, however, is Lee’s relentless cheerleading for business of all stripes, particularly the tech industry. Conway presents a juicy target. The bearish angel investor poured $150,000 of his own money into Lee’s mayoral campaign, and through the creation of sf.citi, his tech-industry lobbying group, he has remained close to City Hall. The Mayor’s Office has pushed for regulations benefiting companies that Conway invests in, such as Airbnb, which allows people to rent out their apartments as short-term hotel rooms, and Square, a smartphone credit card processor. Speaking for many, one close observer says, “When Ron Conway wants something, Ed jumps.”

But far from being defensive about these accusations, the mayor laughs when I ask him about Brown and Pak. “[The critics] should see the hours I spend with everybody else!” he quips. He tosses off a few names: UCSF chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman, Tipping Point Community founder Daniel Lurie, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. “I talk to a lot of people, and I would say to those who think I’m over-influenced, they don’t even know my schedule.”

Though he doesn’t directly address his relationship with Conway when I ask him about it, he remains unabashed about his close ties to the technology industry. He insists that the time he spends with all tech companies—not just the buzzy social media outfits—is an economic necessity. It would be mayoral malpractice, he believes, to ignore one of the biggest drivers of the local economy. “I don’t think I’m getting close for personal reasons,” he says. “I’m getting close to them for the economic future of the city. That’s where we have to be—that’s the modern city. If I don’t do that, we’re going to be forever catching up.” I put the same question—has Lee become too close to Conway and his fellow tech titans?—to someone who has known the mayor for a long time. The person offers a similar explanation, but also this: “Ed is a guy who pays his debts.”

In many ways, the questions about influence point to a larger truth: The Lee administration is essentially a continuation of what has come before, for good and ill. Each mayor, of course, leaves his or her stamp on the proceedings. Brown was the insider who never put anything on paper; Newsom was the big-idea guy with a follow-through problem; Lee is the bureaucrat with the lefty back story and the knack for consensus. But many other factors—from the sway of the business community to the internal politics of city departments—change very little from one administration to the next. As someone with deep City Hall connections puts it, “The machine is very good at keeping power.”

 

For all of Lee’s success thus far, there are undoubtedly rougher seas ahead. He must ride herd on a bureaucracy charged with meshing the city’s universal healthcare ordinance with the mandates of Obamacare, and he has to ensure that our rickety public transport infrastructure can support the city’s rapid growth. He must redouble his efforts on homelessness, a problem that has bedeviled generations of mayors. (In a burst of astonishing candor this fall, Lee gave his administration’s handling of the issue a grade of C. His homelessness czar, Bevan Dufty, responded with a pained one-word retort: “Ouch.”) The mayor has also pledged to rescue the city’s cash-starved, dysfunctional network of federal public housing, home to most of San Francisco’s low-income residents.

Most crucially, Lee must manage the widespread and dramatic ramifications of the boom. Never mind what Lee once said about a planned NBA arena on the waterfront: This is what will truly determine his legacy. Many people wonder if the mayor is up to it. “A vision for San Francisco cannot be based on the America’s Cup and an arena on the waterfront,” says Pan, the Chinese for Affirmative Action executive director. “That doesn’t speak to the real issues facing working-class families who are not able to raise their families in San Francisco, and artists and activists who are increasingly moving to the East Bay because they can’t afford to live here.”

Unlike some of Lee’s more hardened critics, Pan honestly believes that Lee cares about these working people. But, he says, “the question is not an issue of wanting or wishing—it’s knowing what to do. Unfortunately, vision isn’t something you can just pull off a bookshelf.”

When I ask Lee if he’s too much of a plodder to lay out a new blueprint for the city, he says that he takes pride in governing like a bureaucrat—it means that he gets things done. He also says, “I think I’m building the foundation to make bolder decisions.” Lee sketches for me a market-based vision of continuous economic growth—through tech, tourism, and an expanding medical industry—that in turn generates enough money to fund social programs and maintain diversity. It is a virtuous cycle, in his view, of jobs and construction cranes that will transform the city’s geography and provide for its future. It’s not just about helping the rich, he says. It’s about funneling as much of that money as possible into things like affordable housing, job training, and public transportation. But, he adds, “I need a good economic climate in order to have the right partners to do that.”

I ask Lee about housing, and he starts ticking off the numbers. There are 49,000 units in the pipeline—it’s been decades since the city built so much. Some 6,000 units are under construction right now, a full quarter of which are below market rate. “That’s a good number to begin with,” he says. Beyond that, it’s largely a matter of preserving what already exists. Lee is a firm supporter of rent control, he says, pointing to the impending overhaul of public housing as proof of his commitment to keeping the city affordable. He also talks of converting empty City College and school district properties into housing.

None of these measures, though, seems likely to slow the march toward displacement and gentrification anytime soon. It takes an eternity to build anything here—the units coming onto the market now were permitted in the Newsom or even the Brown administration. And rents keep rising. Gordon Chin doesn’t doubt Lee’s commitment, but, as he puts it, “it’s a race against time.” Welch says that the affordable housing trust fund is necessary but nowhere near sufficient and that he’s seen little else from Lee. “His attitude toward affordable housing seems to be ‘been there, done that.’” What’s more, Welch adds, the mayor’s new working groups on public housing and transportation are dominated by developers and are ignoring the poor communities they purport to help.

The mayor’s allies, though, think that if anyone can succeed, it’s Lee. “Any mayor is limited in what he can do,” says the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Shaw. “And Ed is doing everything he can.”

 

City politics have turned on development for decades, and, as the 8 Washington votes indicated, the mayor’s full-throated embrace of the boom could come back to haunt him. Corey Cook, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, directs me to this year’s State of the City address, during which Lee beat his chest about the city’s economic development. “If you look at this speech in two years, it might look like a listing of all the seeds of discontent,” Cook says.

That history, though, hasn’t been written. On a blustery fall night, as the wind howls down Market Street, I watch Lee address a crowd of developers at an awards ceremony for the Housing Action Coalition, a pro-development group that vociferously backed 8 Washington. The mayor is one of the honorees, and he uses his time to outline his vision of an ideal San Francisco. Lee’s speech is composed mostly of things that he’s said many times before. But something seems different tonight. Earlier in the day, the Oracle team completed its improbable comeback to win the America’s Cup, and Lee has come straight from the festivities. Maybe it’s the champagne, but he invests his lines about making San Francisco a city for the 100 percent with more emotion than usual.

Lee muses over the difference between a housing unit and a home before concluding, “It means the community that people live in as well as those units.” With a little heat in his voice, he adds, “This is what I want to be the mayor of.” Leaning forward into the microphone, he urges the assembled crowd to stick with him. “Work with me not only this year, but every single year and every single month,” he says, “building communities, building homes, and having a place for everyone to be in.” It is less a sweeping vision than one measured in increments, a continuation of what has come before—but just a bit better. It is the vision of the tortoise, not the hare.

As the applause wanes, Lee steps from the stage and is immediately surrounded. Everyone wants to shake his hand, congratulate him, or just talk about the America’s Cup. Instead of hurrying out to the next event, he lingers, laughing and talking. Soon, he’s lost in the scrum. 


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of
San Francisco magazine
 

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