San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died early Tuesday morning at age 65. The son of Chinese immigrants, Lee became the city’s first Asian-American mayor and served San Francisco in numerous capacities since his early days organizing tenants to fight for their housing rights in Chinatown. That work evolved into the two pillars of his legacy: immigration and housing. His office released a statement to announce his sudden passing,
“It is with profound sadness and terrible grief that we confirm that Mayor Edwin M. Lee passed away on Tuesday, December 12 at 1:11 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Family, friends and colleagues were at his side.”
Lee grew up in Seattle, attended Bowdoin College in Maine and moved to San Francisco in 1975 — a pivotal time for the city. Lee might have been a newcomer, yet he quickly found his footing not only studying civil rights law but also in the fight for fair housing for the city’s immigrants. He told David Talbot, author of San Francisco history Season of the Witch, “Landlords … hated my guts. They saw me coming and said, ‘There’s that Communist Ed Lee!” By 1989, Lee had taken on a new role as Investigator for the city’s first Whistle Blower’s Ordinance, and in 1991, he became the the San Francisco Human Rights Commission Director. From the late ’90s through the early aughts he took on even more jobs for the city before being elected Mayor in 2011.
Critics say his huge influence on San Francisco housing and development took a wrong turn away from his early work to make downtown more equal for immigrant renters. Post tech boom, San Francisco is now synonymous with high rents and impossibly competitive housing. Yet Lee remained true to his roots in his repeated, adamant insistence that San Francisco remain a sanctuary city, despite the markedly xenophobic turn the country has taken since President Trump was elected. As Lee said in a speech almost one year ago, “We are a Sanctuary City, now, tomorrow, forever.”
Whether that remains true under the leadership of Lee’s replacement remains to be seen, as will the city’s path through its current housing crisis. But Lee will certainly be remembered for his impact on the city he loved. As he put it during his 2011 swearing in, “Decades ago, I was about as anti-establishment as one could be. But today, like you, I’m trying to make the establishment work for all San Franciscans.” Indeed, its hard to separate San Francisco as it stands today from Lee’s work. His fingerprints will remain all over the iconic city.