Before Ed Lee became San Francisco's first Asian American mayor, he came from humble beginnings in Seattle—a second-generation Chinese American born in Beacon Hill and raised in public housing. After years of community activism and work as a civil rights attorney, he became fondly known in the Asian and Pacific Islander community as a trailblazer who broke the bamboo ceiling.
Stunned—that was the reaction from former governor Gary Locke when he heard Lee died suddenly early Tuesday morning. He was 65.
"Just an incredible loss for the Asian American community," Locke told PubliCola. He wasn't sure the mayoral role would have been his last stop—he had been encouraging him to run for a statewide or Congressional role. "He really had a bright future ahead of him."
He was pronounced dead at a San Francisco hospital at about 1am on Tuesday after a heart attack, according to reports, leaving many in Seattle's API and political realms mourning. He's remembered as gregarious and light-hearted. Lee was the first mayor to reach out to Jenny Durkan, she said, after she was elected Seattle mayor. And he had "a long history of breaking barriers" starting as the first to attend college in his family, she said in a statement.
"His enthusiasm for making his city and our world better were inspiring," Durkan said. "In Seattle, we were fortunate to count him as our own as well and his loss is a loss for Seattle."
"Mayor Lee was a strong partner with the city of Seattle and an inspiration to so many in our local Chinese and broader API community," Seattle deputy mayor Mike Fong said in a statement to PubliCola. "I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to get to know him and work with his team. His leadership will be deeply missed."
We're proud that Mayor Ed Lee was South Seattle born & a Franklin High School graduate. Like we here in Seattle, he ensured that his adopted city of San Francisco stood up for pro-immigrant values of inclusion & equity. Our deepest condolences. His family is in our thoughts. https://t.co/0717LPapdy— Office of Imm & Ref (@IandRAffairs) December 12, 2017
Crushing news from San Francisco this morning. Ed Lee was a champion for progress and a role model for many from his hometown of Seattle.— Benton Strong (@bentonstrong) December 12, 2017
Lee's father also died of a heart attack when Lee was 15 years old, Northwest Asian Weekly reported, in a large family with six kids. Lee worked in a kitchen to contribute, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, and eventually moved to attend the University of California in Berkeley. He worked as a civil rights attorney and an activist who fought minority displacement in San Francisco in the 1970s.
When Lee got appointed mayor, San Francisco was just beginning to face the tech boom that would later define both its economy and affordability challenges. Gavin Newsom was elected California's lieutenant governor in the 2010 election, leaving the executive seat open. Lee became the first Asian American to lead the city—which is more than 35 percent Asian.
Lee had long promised he wasn't interested in running for elected office, according to reports. But many of those close to him had pushed him, including Locke, he said.
"He kept downplaying it. That's something he didn't feel comfortable doing," Locke said. "About that time, he was a city administrator and doing a terrific job, so highly respected. That's a testament to his effectiveness."
Absolutely heartbroken by Mayor Lee's passing. SF has lost a selfless leader and dedicated public servant whose intellect, integrity, boundless optimism & contagious love elevated our City. Jen and I mourn the loss of a dear friend. Our prayers are with Anita, Brianna and Tania. pic.twitter.com/sNagX55s7F— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) December 12, 2017
After a taste being mayor, he ran for the executive seat later that same year he was appointed. He won reelection in 2015.
He still often visited Seattle for family. In January, he made an appearance alongside Ed Murray at a Seattle University panel, where they both spoke about sanctuary city policies, housing and homelessness, and their next moves following President Donald Trump's win—"two Eds are always better than one," Lee quipped, then grimaced at his own joke.
San Francisco's politics aligned well with Seattle; Lee had been known as a champion for people of color for decades, assisting in both civil rights and city contracting for minority-owned businesses. In response to election results, Lee said they were "about to lose a friend" in the White House and that now is the time for cities like San Francisco and Seattle to "renew" their values of diversity.
"In doing so, we discovered a tremendous power of thought, a tremendous stream of emotion and heart that stretches everywhere from Southern California all the way to Canada," Lee said. "I think that has given us a much more clear purpose so that we don't just use the words of 'diversity' and 'sanctuary,' 'anti-discrimination,' as just academic words. We actually find ways to live those words in a much more dedicated way. ... You get people ready. Because when people are ready, fear will not rule us."