SAN FRANCISCO — Mayor Ed Lee, who oversaw a technology-driven economic boom in San Francisco that brought with it sky-high housing prices despite his lifelong commitment to economic equality, died suddenly early Tuesday at age 65.
A statement from Lee’s office said the city’s first Asian-American mayor died at 1:11 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Lee was surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. Supervisor Jeff Sheehy said Lee collapsed while grocery shopping at a Safeway Monday night.
The Democrat’s sudden death shocked public officials, who praised the low-key mustachioed mayor who was known more as a former civil rights lawyer and longtime city bureaucrat than as a flashy politician.
“I am floored. I can’t believe he’s gone. I just held a press conference with Mayor Lee yesterday … He was his normal friendly and jovial self,” state Sen. Scott Wiener told KTVU-TV.
Hundreds of workers gathered for a press conference at City Hall Tuesday, where flags were lowered and the mood was somber.
“He fought many tough political battles, but they never dimmed his spirit,” said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who became acting mayor until the 11-member Board of Supervisors elects a new one. “Everyone agrees that our mayor was a good man with a good heart. He believed above all else in building bridges to solve problems.”
Lee, the child of immigrants from China, was a staunch supporter of many of the liberal policies most associated with San Francisco, including higher minimum wages, marriage equality and sanctuary status for those living in the country illegally.
He reiterated his continuing support for sanctuary city last month after a Mexican man who had been repeatedly deported was acquitted of murder in the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in a case that sparked national debate, saying that San Francisco would remain a city of tolerance, love and acceptance.
Former Mayor Willie Brown and the late political power broker Rose Pak talked Lee into filling out the rest of Gavin Newsom’s term when he was elected California’s lieutenant governor in 2010. Lee was appointed interim mayor by the Board of Supervisors in 2011 after professing no interest in taking on the job permanently.
Lee changed his mind and won a four-year term in 2011. He was re-elected in 2015.
Brown said Lee’s election showed non-politicians could win elective office.
“We won based on our political shenanigans and our political skillsets. He got elevated to our mayor-ship under our charter and got re-elected twice,” said Brown, adding that Lee will be known as the man who “stepped up and made it possible for Silicon Valley to almost relocate to our city.”
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who lives in San Francisco, said Lee’s background as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer served the city well.
“He knew the rhythms and the workings of San Francisco at the most granular level, and dedicated decades to improving the lives of all San Franciscans,” she said in a statement.
Detractors claimed Lee catered too much to Silicon Valley, citing his brokering of a tax break in 2011 to benefit Twitter as part of a remake of the city’s downtown. When Lee took office in January 2011, Zillow reported the median home value in San Francisco was more than $656,000. It is now more than $1.2 million.
In 2015, he ran against a slate of little-known candidates who criticized him as doing more for tech leaders than for poor people.
Edwin Mah Lee was born May 5, 1952, in Seattle to Chinese immigrants who hailed from Toisan, a rural village in the southern province of Guangdong, China. His father was a cook and his mother a seamstress. They raised Lee and his five siblings in public housing.
“We learn modesty. We learn sacrifice. We learn to be humble from people who may have even less. But we learn how to fight and survive at the same time,” Lee said in an interview with KTVU in February 2017.
Lee graduated from Bowdoin College in 1974 and from the University of California, Berkeley law school in 1978. He worked as a housing activist and civil rights attorney for 13 years as a member of the Asian Law Caucus before joining city government in 1989 as the city’s first investigator under its whistleblower ordinance.
He then served as deputy of human relations, director of public works and city administrator before joining the Board of Supervisors.
San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she did not agree with Lee on business issues but was surprised to develop a great working relationship with Lee on housing and homelessness issues.
She said the mayor strongly supported opening a new homeless center in the Mission District named the Navigation Center.
“Sometimes he wasn’t the most brilliant public speaker and he didn’t seem super comfortable in that role, but when he talked to people on the street and in the Navigation Center, it was another side of Ed Lee,” she said. “He was comfortable and natural and respectful.”
Dr. Susan Ehrlich of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital said Lee arrived at the hospital in critical condition shortly after 10 p.m. Monday.
She said doctors tried lifesaving measures for several hours but Lee died at 1:11 a.m. An autopsy will determine the cause of death, but no other details will be released now because of the wishes of Lee’s family, Erlich told reporters.
The last San Francisco mayor to die in office was George Moscone, who was murdered by a disgruntled former Board of Supervisors member in 1978, leading to the ascension of then-Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein to mayor. Feinstein is now California’s senior U.S. senator.
Lee’s death now will likely upend the race to replace him, which had been scheduled for 2019. Former state Sen. Mark Leno, a onetime member of the Board of Supervisors and longtime political figure, has already announced his candidacy. Breed was also expected to seek the office.