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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.

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, 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 issue of
San Francisco magazine

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