Ed Lee ’74 died on December 12, 2017, in San Francisco, California.
(The following was published in The New York Times, December 12, 2017:)
Ed Lee, a lawyer and affordable housing advocate who was the first Asian-American to be elected mayor of San Francisco, died early Tuesday in a hospital there after collapsing. He was 65 and in the midst of his second full term.
The cause was not immediately announced by his office. In a statement, the office said he died at 1:11 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
Mr. Lee was in critical condition when he arrived at the hospital by ambulance shortly after 10 p.m. on Monday, according to Dr. Susan P. Ehrlich, the hospital’s chief executive. Mr. Lee’s family asked that further medical details not be released, she said.
Local news accounts said Mr. Lee had collapsed while shopping at a supermarket.
London Breed, the president of the board of supervisors, was named acting mayor. Dennis Herrera, the city’s attorney, said the board can decide whether it wants to choose a replacement mayor before June, when an election will determine who will finish out Mr. Lee’s term. He was re-elected in 2015.
Mr. Lee was a symbol of the city’s changing demographics, from a white majority to what the mayor called a “majority of minority groups.” Whites made up 42 percent of the population in the 2010 census, while Asians constituted a third of the population, Latinos about 15 percent and African-Americans 6 percent.
Electing its first Chinese-American mayor was a milestone for a city that had a long history of discrimination against Chinese people.
As mayor, Mr. Lee presided over a tremendous shift in wealth in the city, driven by the technology boom that put San Francisco at the center of global innovation.
Rents soared to levels only the wealthiest could afford, an ironic development for Mr. Lee, who lived in a public-housing project as a boy and began his career fighting for affordable housing. When he took office in 2011, the median home value in San Francisco was $656,500. Today it is about $1.25 million.
A sharp rise in rents — the city’s median rent is about $4,300 — also pushed large segments of the middle class out of the city. Office rents in parts of the city rose higher than those in Manhattan.
As mayor, Mr. Lee sought to maintain San Francisco as, in his words, an “international beacon.”
“People come here to innovate, they want to have the ideas, they want to challenge themselves with different languages and different cultures and be successful at the same time,” he said.
Edwin Mah Lee was born on May 5, 1952, in the Beacon Hill section of Seattle to Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s. His mother was a seamstress; his father, a war veteran and a cook in a family restaurant, died when Mr. Lee was a teenager.
He and his five siblings grew up in a Seattle public housing complex before his parents built a modest home, Mr. Lee told The Los Angeles Times in 2015. Helping with the restaurant’s deliveries, he recalled, he heard customers castigate his father with racial slurs.
“It was an awakening,” he told The Times. He said he wondered at the time, “Why do we as people take this?”
Mr. Lee received a full scholarship to attend Bowdoin College in Maine and, after graduating, moved to the Bay Area in 1975 to study law at the University of California, Berkeley.
He told The New York Times last year that he had been drawn to San Francisco for its diversity and tolerance.
“Being born and raised in Seattle, I wanted to get away from the rain, and, of course, sunny California was attractive,” Mr. Lee said. But he was mostly drawn, he said, by his sense that “maybe a person of a different ethnic background could be welcomed and succeed.”
He quickly became involved in the housing issues that would define his early career. His understanding of Cantonese and Taishanese helped him win the trust of immigrant communities, whom he fought for as part of the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus.
After a decade, he left that organization and worked in a succession of five city departments under four mayors. He was appointed the city’s human rights commissioner in 1991 and city administrator in 2005.
Mr. Lee became mayor — originally interim mayor — in January 2011 when, ending weeks of disputes, the board of supervisors, in a 10-to-1 vote, chose him to fill out the term of Gavin Newsom, who had resigned the office after being elected lieutenant governor of California.
Mr. Lee at first expressed reluctance to hold the job beyond Mr. Newsom’s term, which was to end in January 2012. But he ultimately entered the race in August 2011 and was elected that November.
He is survived by his wife, Anita, and two daughters, Tania and Brianna.
Mr. Lee presided over one of the most explosive periods of growth in San Francisco’s history. Two decades earlier, the city’s business establishment was lamenting how the city’s reputation as a headquarters for major banking institutions and companies had eroded as firms left or were acquired in mergers.
But Mr. Lee, taking office in the aftermath of the Great Recession, worked to bring employers back and became a strong booster of development and growth, particularly in the technology industry.
Though San Francisco had faced a yawning budget deficit and an unemployment rate above 10 percent after the recession, it rebounded. With its rapid growth, however, the city soon found itself grappling with an affordable housing crisis and a backlash by San Franciscans against the tech sector, one that was vividly dramatized in 2013 when protesters blocked and vandalized buses taking tech workers to their jobs in Silicon Valley.
Mr. Lee easily won re-election in 2015.
This year, housing issues were again weighing on the city, and residents projected their frustrations onto the mayor. A column in The San Francisco Chronicle in May headlined “Where’s Ed Lee, our fading mayor?” questioned his ability to contend with the challenges facing the tech hub.
But Mr. Lee could still be forceful on issues that mattered to him, and he retained his passion for immigrant rights. In January, in his State of the City address, he insisted that San Francisco would remain a sanctuary city, limiting its cooperation with the federal government on immigration laws, “now, tomorrow, forever.”