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Ed Lee Remembered By Those Who Knew Him Best

His closest friends look back on the man who never thought he would be mayor. 

Ed Lee 

 

One day after the sudden, unexpected death of Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco reached out to many of the people who knew him best: His former colleagues, his friends, and his critics. Here, they share their memories and reflections of their friend, mentor, boss, and leader.

THE EVERYMAN MAYOR

Gordon Chin, founder, Chinatown Community Development Center
Ed was just a regular guy. When he had the heart attack, he was shopping at Safeway. This is the mayor of San Francisco! I don't think there are too many mayors in recent history that you would see actually grocery shopping with his family late at night.

Nathan Ballard, media strategist
We met 20 years ago, when he was at the Department of Public Works and I was at the City Attorney’s office. I never thought he was going to be mayor. He had no ego and was just focused on getting the job done.

David Ho, activist
When I first met him, he was probably making six figures with the city as the director of the Department of Public Works, but he always drive the same car, a Camry or something. When he opened his trunk, there was always junk in there. I swear, I thought he was a hoarder. Then I found out, he would see garbage and go pick shit up from the street. This is a true story, I’m not making this up. His wife would get mad at him, like why are you leaving garbage in your car? It smells. He would just laugh about it. He said, "You know, I’m a city worker too."

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco Public Defender
One time I saw him cleaning one of the medians, I think it was on Monterey Boulevard. I stopped my car and said, “Hey, Ed, what are you doing?” He said, “Someone’s gotta do it.” He was like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction. When there was a big mess, he would be called in to fix it.

Scott Wiener, California State Senator
Before he became mayor, I was campaigning for supervisor. Since he lived in Glen Park, he was my potential constituent. He was the city administrator at the time. I was knocking on doors one day as he was coming home from work. We didn’t know each other that well, but he was telling me about the rat infestation in the public staircase right near their house. That’s a very Ed Lee conversation—what are we going to do to fix the rat infestation?

 

THE QUIET OPERATOR

Ballard

In 2008, for reasons that don’t merit going into today, Mayor Gavin Newsom decided not to go on a trip to China with Rose Pak. I was disappointed because I wasn’t going to get to go on that trip. I said to Ed, “too bad we aren’t going tomorrow,” and he said, “Oh, I’m going.” He stood out as someone who could effortlessly glide through the different factions in City Hall. That was when I first realized what a force of his own he was.

Chin
He had two careers, each of which spanned fifteen to twenty years. I believe that Ed never forgot some of the core values he had as an activist. Whether he was able to realize those core values as mayor is an open question.

Tony Winnicker, advisor
When he took office the city was in the midst of a great recession, there was double digit unemployment, people were writing articles about San Francisco is this boutique city of the past that people would come and visit. It wasn’t a financial center anymore. It wasn’t a manufacturing center. He lead the city out of the great recession and into a powerhouse, as the center of tech and innovation.

Rev. Norman Fong, executive director, Chinatown Community Development Center
The big case was when he appointed another candidate to replace David Chiu, who was the first Chinese district supervisor to represent us. We thought he’d appoint another Chinese person. It didn’t happen and that’s when Rose Pak and Gordon Chin and everybody got very disappointed in him. He had to do it for a reason and he never told me, he just said, “It’s water under the bridge.” In spite of all that he was still our guy.

Wiener
Mayor Lee and I took office within a few days of each other in January 2011. When we took office the city barely had started to come out of the recession, unemployment was pushing 10 percent. We had a huge budget deficit, so the focus was on jobs and getting people back to work. Pretty quickly, we succeeded. We got a lot of jobs in the city but didn’t have enough housing. I think what he’ll be remembered for is presiding over a city in transition.

 

THE CONCENSUS FINDER

Ho
Ed Lee genuinely loved city government. I think he coined the term “city family.” He genuinely loved people and was forgiving of folks he disagreed with. I don't think he ever fired a department head.

Fong
I remember one time I was yelling at him, I wanted more money for our alleys in Chinatown, and he said he had to think about the whole city, for everybody. I felt guilty afterwards. It’s a philosophical issue—how much do you do for your community, how much do you do citywide?

Francis Tsang, Deputy Chief of Staff
He was always willing to listen even if he did not always agree. He was about compromise—that was his soft leadership. It wasn’t splashy leadership, my-way-or-the-highway leadership. It was soft power. There’s always people out there raising their fist, telling people what to do. He was more behind the scenes.

Carmen Chu, San Francisco Assessor-Recorder
Over the years we attended many events together, we worked a lot together, and we laughed a lot together. Mayor Ed Lee officiated my wedding. We bought ice cream from Marco Polo’s for the Lincoln High School Girls team when they won the Citywide Basketball Championship. He even wore a tracksuit to appropriately open the annual ping pong competition at Portsmouth Square!

Sam Liccardo, San Jose Mayor
In the early weeks of my tenure, Ed took the time to reach out to me and sit down, and his first questions were how can I help you be successful in San Jose and what can we can work on together. He was a very collaborative man.

 

THE LIGHTNING ROD

Chin
Ed has generally been pro-development, as mayors before him had been, but probably did more in terms of affordable housing construction than any other mayor. The other side of the housing problem has been less successful. First, there’s the homeless issue, which has been an intractable problem for the last few mayors. He’s given his effort with the Navigation Centers. We probably need ten or fifteen of them scattered throughout the city. The other part of the housing problem is affordability. Because of the economy, there’s been a tremendous increase in evictions, rent increases and Airbnb conversions, which affect thousands of low income, working class and even middle class San Franciscans. Ed and the city has been less successful in dealing with that problem. You can’t build your way out of it.

Winnicker
People complain about all the construction right now, a lot of that is because we’re fixing everything. All the stuff we didn’t fix for decades, under Mayor Lee we’re actually fixing. Whether it’s new subways, repaved streets, new sewer lines, water lines, seawalls, parks, schools, or libraries, that’s the stuff he loved—the infrastructure. Maybe it was the public works director in him that never left, but he was most excited about passing general obligation bonds to repave the streets or bonds to build public transit.

PJ Johnston, public relations specialist
The second inauguration was painful, instead of celebratory. It was hard to have his family sitting in the front row and be shouted down. It felt tremendously unfair at the time, but the issues that the community was dealing with and what people were voicing were real. Frankly, they aligned with Ed Lee’s whole mission in life, so that made it doubly painful. Now, he never said as much to me, but I knew him well enough to say with some confidence that it hurt. He never criticized, at least in my presence, the members of the public who came out to protest. It was an emotional moment in our city, and he understood it.

Winnicker
People take that economic prosperity that we now have for granted. They only talk about it in terms of the problems that it caused. There certainly are impacts from a prosperous economy, but most cities would kill for what we have. Some people talk as if they wish we return to a recession and the human misery that that brings, as if that’s preferable. He never believed that.

Adachi
When he was booed at his second inauguration, I think he did take it personally. He felt that he was being unjustly labeled as someone who didn't care about these issues. He wasn't a mayor who would speak out on those types of issues. He would just do it.

Ballard
When we launched the Warriors area, I was working for the Warriors. It was Ed Lee’s idea to bring all the San Francisco supervisors over to Oakland for secret meetings ahead of time to get everybody on board. We got unanimous board approval from the very beginning because of Ed Lee’s political strategy. On the day of the launch, Mayor Lee said, “this will be my legacy project.” I thought, wow, that’s a bold statement. It wasn't in the talking points that i prepared for him. When we cut the ribbon at the new Warriors arena, the name Ed Lee will be on everyone’s lips.

 

THE JOKESTER, THE CHEAPSKATE, AND THE SUGAR FIEND

Winnicker
There were short jokes, there were mustache jokes, there were sports team jokes. They were always appropriate, but corny.

David Chiu, California State Assemblyman
I will miss his jokes, even the corniest ones. He always gave me a hard time about not being a dad until I became a dad. And then, when I became a dad, we shifted to conversation about parenting and the challenges of being a father. I always appreciated that.

Wiener
He was always joking about my height and his height. We would stand next to each other at press conferences and photos and I’m dramatically taller. My campaign mascot was a giraffe, so he would call me the giraffe.

Ho
Really, he liked to crack all kinds of jokes. I can’t repeat all of them to you. The corny ones are definitely good for PG, but you are printing this.

Tsang
For exercise, he played golf. His exercise was walking the course. Some people ride carts, but he would walk each hole and carry his own bag. He was pretty competitive, but he wasn’t someone who would ever get mad and throw his clubs. Maybe that was just his frugality coming out—why would he want throw a club and break it?

Ho
The guy loved ice cream. He had a sweet tooth. I remember at the time Anita was trying to make him keep his weight down and be more healthy. I had a meeting with him when he was interim mayor at 10 a.m. I asked if he wanted anything and he said, “hey can I have some ice cream?” So I walked in with a chocolate sundae for him from Bi Rite, made fresh. Anita caught us.

Chu
At our one-on-one check-ins. I’d often sneak him a piece of chocolate, usually Mounds, if we weren’t already eating.

 

THE LAST MEMORIES

Winnicker
I actually saw him at breakfast the day he died, at Sam’s Diner on Market Street near 8th. It’s one of his favorite places to go. He seemed upbeat, he was in a good mood.

Johnston
I think in years to come, when cooler heads prevail, people will look back and agree that a vibrant, active, beautiful and thriving city that even with the attendant economic challenges is far more preferable than a struggling city.

Ballard
I really thought that he would have some time to be retired and become a grandfather. I feel just awful that he didn't get a chance to enjoy his retirement after serving us so diligently for these years.

Agnos
There’s no question that we disagreed on some policies, but quite frankly throughout my career I’ve never agreed one hundred percent with anybody. That’s why you have debates and discussions We obviously disagreed, but that did not diminish my respect for his energy and his commitment in a very, very hard job. It's the toughest job in city politics.

Ho
Seeing him become the city’s first Chinese-American mayor means a lot to many of us who study the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. Ascending to Room 200 at City Hall was always going to be a monumental achievement really was the pivotal moment for for many of my peers and people who came before me. He is always going to be a role model for Asian American activists coming up.

Winnicker
Big cities are, especially San Francisco are sometimes unruly and chaotic. That’s what makes it great and that also makes it difficult to govern sometimes. Mayor Lee was not someone who changed his whole life to be in that arena of politics. He refused to play some of the political games, even when it would have been in his interest to do so. Was that a mistake? I don’t think so. It just wasn’t who he was.

Chu
I’ll miss him as a friend, a mentor and someone who represented the possible: to be from an immigrant family and be mayor, to come from little means and be mayor, to be kind and humble and be mayor.

Fong
Our Chinese American youth can say, hey, maybe one day I’ll be mayor of San Francisco. That was powerful for us. I want to highlight that. I’m glad he had good family and community roots, and I think he tried his best to stay faithful to that as best as he could. But San Francisco is a left coast city, right? He was held to higher standards. 

 

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