The Legacy of Ed Lee

Ed Lee and Greg Suhr walking out of a Mission Street business. 2013

Our mayor, who died today at 65, is recalled near universally as a decent man. As for how he affected the city, however, that’s harder to say.  


San Francisco City Hall was awash in black suits, white coffee cups, and red eyes. Public servants, many of whom had formed a pre-dawn convoy to Mayor Ed Lee’s bedside in Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, ambled about in a half-stupor, offering one another embraces and expressions of disbelief.

In life, the mayor could be a divisive figure; he served as something of the city’s official greeter for the social and economic conditions inundating San Francisco like a tsunami; as such, he was an ever-smiling cipher who absorbed untold quantities of public wrath. In January of last year, he was booed, lustily, at his third swearing-in after a mayoral contest in which he essentially ran unopposed. That series of seemingly contrasting circumstances neatly encapsulates the slightly surreal state of our city and the strange fortunes of our erstwhile mayor. 

This morning, however — as was the case last year following the sudden death of Lee’s lifelong friend and patron turned bitter critic Rose Pak — the mayor’s own sudden death induced political enemies to clutch one another and sway and weep.

Every last member of what Lee unironically called “the City Family” stood on the Mayor’s balcony in City Hall; bureaucrats and journalists and random attendees overflowed into the corridors and looked on from every tier of the building as acting Mayor London Breed lauded Lee’s fundamental kindness and decency. More than a bit ironically, considering it was cardiac arrest that took Lee at just 65, the mayor was remembered, again and again, for his great heart.

At City Hall today. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

“Ed Lee had empathy. He listened. He had remarkable integrity,” said Lt. Gov. and former mayor Gavin Newsom as he wandered the halls, clearly agitated at the jarring loss. “Ed was one of the good ones. You didn’t have to agree with his politics, but he was the kind of guy you wanted in politics. There are not a lot of guys like that.”

Breed’s mention of Lee’s propensity for corny jokes induced a wave of laughter from the crowd — one last chuckle for the mayor from the great beyond. Politicos who’d butted heads with him only days ago were forced to admit that they’re going to miss those corny jokes.  

“On Saturday I got a call from Ed on my cell phone, but when I picked it up he wasn’t there,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who had no shortage of feuds both public and private with both Newsom and Lee. “I texted him and said ‘Ed, did you butt dial me or are you finally returning my call?'” Peskin smiles. “Ed called back two minutes later and said ‘Both!'”

Lee’s avuncular personality and the heartfelt tributes regarding his caring and decent nature make assessing his legacy a challenge. Ours is a city that often demonstrates that it values good intentions more than good results. And, while Lee’s intentions were, by all accounts, the very best, his results are harder to gauge.

Lee, at times, referred to himself as the “tech mayor” and the “housing mayor,” and this city’s relationship with the tech industry and the intertwined matter of housing affordability are both subjects of extreme and vitriolic contention. He didn’t call himself the “homeless mayor,” but combatting homelessness was also a major initiative of Lee’s. How well he succeeded there is also a matter of extreme and vitriolic contention.  

Lee was a warm man leading a city that feels increasingly cold. When personal memories of his decency fade, his legacy may be left cold as well.

Edwin Mah Lee died at 1:11 this morning and it was hard, on this day, to find anyone to speak ill of him. That was not the case yesterday or the day before or any of the nearly seven years he led this city. There will always will be people who think of Lee with acrimony because he fundamentally broke the singular promise that enabled him to become mayor. In a behind-the-scenes power play orchestrated by this city’s most toothsome political sharks, a majority of the Board of Supervisors voted for Lee to serve as the “caretaker” filling out Newsom’s term following Lee’s explicit pledge that he would not run for mayor.

“I believe Ed Lee believed he was not gonna run,” says former District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly. “But I knew he was gonna run because I know how shit works.”

Daly, at the time, famously berated his board colleagues for committing “the biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics.” The former supe pivoted into running a bar on Market Street — but, following the Twitter tax break championed by Lee, found himself unable to meet his landlord’s new expectations of what constituted market rent.

He is now an employee of the Nevada teachers’ union and residing in Las Vegas, where he has watched his bitterest San Francisco rivals become front-runners for governor and, even, a potential presidential candidate. But he wasn’t wrong about what he said about Ed Lee on Jan. 4, 2011.

At that time, no one had ever heard of Uber or Airbnb or Twitter or $3,500 median rent or Ron Conway buying his way into a mayor’s good graces. No one man could have prevented all of this, but “preventing” it was not on Lee’s agenda. The mayor was, after all, pronounced dead in a public hospital recently named after the city’s premier tech baron.  

Lee, friends and foes alike came to realize, was a nice guy and not confrontational; unlike Willie Brown, who ran a tight ship, Lee cut back senior meetings with department heads to just once or twice a year. That’s a remarkably laissez-faire way of running the city, but that was part of a larger pattern. Multiple tech platforms sired in San Francisco became multi-billion dollar conglomerates via business models that specifically and explicitly broke city laws — and San Francisco officials were slow (at best) to do much about that. A mayor is defined not only by the fights he picks, but by the ones he doesn’t.

Breed, in her remarks from the lectern today, noted that Lee guided a troubled city economy into today’s juggernaut thanks to the creation of 140,000 jobs. He signed one of the nation’s highest minimum wages into law and revamped public housing (like Lee, Breed grew up in public housing). Lee did, indeed, do all of this. Seen another way, however, those 140,000 jobs were a driver of economic inequality; they went disproportionately to outsiders and helped raise rent and land values to infinity and beyond. And, while Lee’s drive to improve public housing is an unmitigated good, the mayor also included these units in the tally of new housing to be added in this city. Double-counting these numbers is the kind of thing politicians do. But the appeal of Ed Lee was supposed to be that he wasn’t a politician.

As for homelessness, whether the programs that went into place under Lee are working remains, largely, to be seen. Jeff Kositsky, the director of the city’s new, unified department overseeing homelessness, pointed out that 1,300 units aimed at housing the homeless are in the pipeline, joining 7,400 already in existence. A coordinated entry system is in place for families and in progress for single adults and children. Other West Coast cities have experienced a homeless boom; San Francisco’s numbers are holding steady.

“We’re on the right path,” promises Kositsky. “It breaks my heart Ed won’t be here to see it.”

When Daly went ballistic in 2011, the main recipient of his ire was then-Supervisor David Chiu. Chiu, who would go on to run against Lee for mayor, helped to put into place a man who he thought was, merely, a placeholder.

Alas. Lee undermined Chiu, who had enabled his ascension. And, by dying, he may have done so again. The special election now coming up in June 2018 would conflict with Assemblyman David Chiu’s June 2018 election for his state office. He would likely have to abdicate his Assembly seat to run in a crowded field for mayor.

Ed Lee’s mayoralty was the end result of a Machiavellian game of political musical chairs, and his premature departure will likely trigger another one. Breed, who was widely predicted to be a mayoral aspirant, now finds herself with the job until at least June, unless another candidate can gain the support of six members of the Board of Supervisors.

In the meantime, San Franciscans — and, perhaps even more so, out-of-town media — may find themselves enamored of the strong, outspoken woman with the inspirational life story and little patience for the goons and thugs now comprising the federal government. This city’s voters have always favored larger-than-life characters like Brown and Newsom more than quiet types like Lee. Breed could fill this role nicely.    

And yet, seen another way, San Francisco’s last four mayors have been Willie Brown, Willie Brown’s handpicked successor, Willie Brown’s handpicked successor, and the woman who babysat Willie Brown’s kids when she was a child.

Breed, however, notably stated that “Willie Brown didn’t wipe my ass when I was a baby,” adding that “I don’t do what no-motherfucking-body tells me to do.”

She will have the chance to demonstrate this, amply, on a very big stage, and sooner than anyone could have thought. Godspeed.

Mayor Ed Lee in the Mission

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3 Comments

  1. Edgar Pagiov

    “Seen another way, however, those 140,000 jobs were a driver of economic inequality; they went disproportionately to outside” — Tell me again how San Francisco loves immigrants. We love feeling good about immigration friendliness, or cheap labor, but how dare anybody move here for a job.

  2. Harry S. Pariser

    Great analysis by Joe (although it misses so many of the bad things that the Lee regime instituted: park privatization and the further commercialization of public space, giveaways to “rideshare” companies and car-rental firms…..

    But there are several mistakes here: Gavin Newsom (why not say the name?) is the only front runner from SF (so he should NOT be plural)!

    And “Willie Brown’s handpicked successor, Willie Brown’s handpicked successor” is repetitious and why not name London Breed by name?

    • Joe Eskenazi

      Harry — Gavin is the front-runner for governor. The potential presidential aspirant is one Kamala D. Harris (we’ll see). As for the repetition, you’re forgetting that Gavin was Willie’s handpicked successor, as was Ed Lee, followed by Breed, his former babysitter.

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