Ed Lee became mayor as San Francisco emerged from the Great Recession into a boom phase rivaling the Gold Rush that first put the city on the map.
Both supporting and containing the excesses of the tech explosion became a central theme of his seven years as mayor. Lee was an unabashed supporter of bringing jobs and tech companies to San Francisco, which he called the Innovation Capital of the World. He oversaw years of dramatic growth that transformed the city’s skyline while also sending real estate values to stratospheric levels.
He also tried — and some say with little success — to tame the boom: higher rents have pushed San Francisco into a housing affordability crisis.
Lee, 65, died early Tuesday, hours after he collapsed while shopping at a supermarket near his home. The issues that he grappled with remain largely unsolved. And as San Francisco residents grieved the sudden loss of Lee, they were faced with the question of how economic forces in the city would change without him at City Hall.
Lee was able to navigate the political waters in part because he rose to power as a community activist and attorney who fought against unlawful evictions.
Constantly talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” Lee championed what became known as the “Twitter tax break,” a cut in the city’s payroll tax that persuaded tech companies to make home a seedy stretch of Market Street or stay there. By the time of Lee’s death, San Francisco’s new tallest building, Salesforce Tower, which replaced a malodorous bus terminal, symbolized the city’s turn in fortunes.
Yet the success in a turbocharged economy led him to focus on “housing, housing, housing” in his second term. Middle- and working-class tenants have departed San Francisco as property values have risen and as developers have sought to convert rent-controlled apartments into condominiums for the wealthy.
In 2014, Lee unveiled a plan to build or rehabilitate 30,000 housing units by 2020. Just in September, Lee said that more than 17,000 units have been brought online, and of those, 35% are permanently affordable.
Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor in 2010, Newsom sought out Lee to replace him as an interim mayor appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Lee resisted.
By then, Lee had gained a reputation as an affable, humble, low-key bureaucrat, known for his chunky mustache and corny jokes. As city administrator, he somehow sidestepped the city’s pitched battles between moderate liberals and more left-leaning progressives.
“He did not always deliver a soundbite, or carry the room with unspoken charisma. Flash never mattered to him,” Breed said.
He said he would serve as interim mayor for only one year, until Newsom’s term expired. But later in 2011, he changed his mind and decided to seek a full term. Among those who pushed him to do so were former Mayor Willie Brown, the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was said to have persuaded him that San Francisco needed him.
Lee managed to overcome other hurdles in San Francisco. He managed to craft a sweeping law to retrofit about 5,000 earthquake-vulnerable wood-frame apartment buildings in the city, a policy goal that eluded his predecessor.
Lee leaves a legacy as the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States. San Francisco was once the center of anti-Chinese sentiment, fostering anti-Chinese riots and attacks on Chinese-owned businesses.
Lee’s election was a milestone for San Francisco’s influential Chinese American population, many of whose ancestors came from China to San Francisco during the Gold Rush era but faced decades of ugly discrimination by both other residents and the government.