The Passing Of San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught public policy at USF, UC Berkeley and other institutions and is Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors

When any city loses its Mayor it is a notable event. When the City is one of the nation’s most important, heavy coverage is guaranteed.

San Francisco’s quiet and often invisible leader for the past seven years, Ed Lee, died unexpectedly this past week bringing close to another epoch in a city always in ferment and frequently maligned by many intolerant Luddites for its progressive ways.

Its choice of Mayors and other elected officials reflects the perpetually ambivalent and restless nature of this rising economic colossus enjoying boom times albeit while the homeless are setting up tents under freeways and an increasingly dispirited middle class feels it has no place at the table as it sees the tax benefits getting doled out to those who least need them.

If we were looking for a fractious community with serious income disparities being driven by the highest housing costs in the nation that is creating great strains along with a welcoming business climate which is steadily fattening the municipal treasuries, San Francisco could be the poster child.

Lee was not tapped for his prowess at social engineering or feats of valor on the political battlefield.

An attorney who had gained some distinction as a fierce housing rights advocate in his early years, he was better known for defending the under-served in the Asian community who needed a champion.

Many of the inequities he inherited when he took office were in fact accentuated by some of his decisions such as one which forgave payroll tax payments to Twitter and other new age entrepreneurs as an incentive to relocate, stimulating a giant wave of new development that is accelerating.

Other actions such as the successful effort to lure the NBA Champion, Golden State Warriors, to a very desirable site on the city’s southern waterfront was met with general applause by a populace still smarting after the exit of its treasured Forty Niner football team to Santa Clara.

Lee had to perform a delicate balancing act which won praises from his corporate supporters—especially in the burgeoning technology sector that is transforming the city’s landscape—but was drawing increasing criticism from those less impressed with all the innovation more concerned about making their rent payment or inability to purchase an affordable home.

However his calm demeanor and sunny disposition in contrast to the adversarial wonkiness and flamboyance associated with his immediate predecessor brought a measure of peace to a City Hall where verbal brawling amongst disputatious Supervisors was considered good etiquette.

Lee, a passionate civil rights activist in his early days, never sought the position and to many seemed uncomfortable when it was bestowed upon him as a compromise candidate to fill out Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s unexpired term who had moved on to Sacramento.

In the brief and mostly silent power struggle following Newsom’s departure, Lee was importuned to take over City Hall in a deal largely brokered by forces behind the scenes who knew how politics works in this very insular city.

These included Willie L. Brown, Jr. the former Mayor and Assembly Speaker nonpareil and one of four under whom Lee had served.

The Mayor, as Brown is still known and now a SF Chronicle columnist and formidable lobbyist, still wields significant clout years after his own often tumultuous reign at City Hall.

Another was Rose Pak, the now deceased and legendary

Queen Pin of Chinatown with influence that extended for a time into every corner of the government.

Pak was by any measure an extraordinary leader and master strategist who labored non-stop to promote those she favored and formed alliances with those who control the levers of power that eventually brought her and them into prominence.

However, the idea of an Asian-American Mayor—Lee was the City’s first ever—was not the sudden epiphany of a few people. It was predictable and merited in a population where those of Asian descent—and especially the Chinese community—have long been major contributors to the region’s commerce and culture.

Ed Lee was the ideal person to assume the mantle at precisely the right moment.

While the farthest thing from a career politician and a reluctant candidate, Lee was intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the city’s sprawling bureaucracy.

His long resume included stints as a Human Rights Commissioner, City Purchaser, Public Works Director and finally Chief Administrator.

He was not a hard sell for the temperamental members of the Board of Supervisors who had worked with him over the years, many of whom envision themselves one day in the Mayoral chair and are empowered by the City’s charter to appoint successors upon a leader’s demise.

That process is now beginning once again with widely respected Board President, London Breed, taking over as Acting Mayor temporarily with a fair chance of keeping the seat in a special election scheduled for next June.

Former Mayor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps the state’s best known Democrat and running for an unprecedented sixth term as its senior senator, when Board President was catapulted under a similar process to national fame more tragically after the assassination of her predecessor.

But with a surfeit of squabbling wannabees, cobbling together the six votes needed even to serve as interim Mayor is never an easy task and the infighting to replace Lee is already in full swing.

Lee was spared the need to run for the job and in fact was far away in China largely removed from the negotiations when the Board, unable to reach consensus on one of its own sealed his and the City’s fate.

Lee said he had no interest in running for election. But as he, at first awkwardly and then more confidently, settled into the stately environs of Room 200 he apparently changed his mind after some criticism, winning election and re-election with minimal opposition.

If Lee every imagined he would be thrust into leadership, he did not reveal it.

In travels with him to China several times on cultural and business missions led by then Mayor Brown, Lee, at the time the low profile Chief Administrative Officer prone to telling corny jokes, and more inclined to discuss his golf game at which he was very good, evidenced zero political ambition.

That, it turned out, was key to his acceptability and during his sadly shortened tenure he proved to be a stabilizing force while putting in motion changes that will alter the city’s trajectory for decades to come.

Of diminutive stature at barely 5’6” and a man of simple tastes and little oratorical flourish of immigrant parents who could walk around the city without people even recognizing him, Mayor Lee’s main agenda was to serve the city he loved.

A decent man, a highly able administrator, a faithful husband and father, and a trustworthy public servant who understood the boundaries of his authority, he leaves behind very big shoes to fill.

In these incomprehensible and dangerous times we need more people like him at the controls.

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