HomeBad Ass AsiansUPDATED: Asian Americans React to Death of Ed Lee

UPDATED: Asian Americans React to Death of Ed Lee

Ed Lee

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who became the nation’s first Asian American mayor of a major US city in 2011, died of a massive heart attack overnight at the age of 65.

ABC7 News reports Lee was grocery shopping last night when he suffered cardiac arrest.

Doctors at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital pronounced him dead at 1:11 a.m.

Lee was a non-politician politician. As a young activist attorney at the city’s Asian Law Caucus, he organized a rent strike at the Ping Yuen Housing Project in Chinatown in 1978. Despite some resistance from residents, the strike went on for six months and the city made improvements in living conditions.

Lee worked at the Asian Law Caucus, now Advancing Justice-ALC, from 1976 until 1989.

Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus
Ed Lee with tenants protesting in front of City Hall in the late 70’s or 80’s. Courtesy: Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus

“Ed was a passionate advocate for civil rights,” said Advaning Justice-ALC in a statement sent to AsAmNews. “His commitment to affordable housing and workers’ rights in the Bay Area continued after he left Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and he continued to champion the needs of low-income and vulnerable Asian Americans in his various roles in city government.

“We are all shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news. We are proud to call Ed an alumnus. Perhaps the greatest testament of his character lies in those instances when Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus disagreed with city policy. Despite the disagreement, the Mayor’s support of ALC’s mission was unwavering. He will be missed, not only by his former colleagues, but all of us who had a chance to work with him as Mayor.”

Don Tamaki served as executive director for Asian Law Caucus beginning in 1980 and was on its board in 1978 during the Ping Yuen rent strike. He said Ed not only worked on housing issues, but helped gain rights for garment workers who were making as little as 50 cents a piece. He called Lee “uniquely qualified” to work on both housing and garment worker issues.

“Ed himself has an immigrant background,” said Tamaki to AsAmNews. “His mother was a seamstress. He understood what it was to live in public housing, and on top of that he was fluent in Cantonese. None of these residents really spoke much English. And so in order for a lawyer to effectively gain their trust and to work with them, being totally fluent and bilingual was essential. Over time, not easily done, he gained their trust.”

Retired administrative law judge Steve Owyang, who also served as Executive and Legal Affairs Secretary with California’s Fair Employment and Housing Commission, fondly remembers working with Lee.

“I am deeply saddened by Ed’s sudden passing, and my thoughts go out to his wife Anita and their daughters,” said Owyang to AsAmNews. “I remember working with him when we were law students in the mid-1970’s at Boalt Hall and at the Asian Law Caucus’s first San Francisco office on Waverly Place in Chinatown. Ed was completely dedicated to improving the lives of Chinatown residents.”

Lee himself grew up in a government subsidized housing in Seattle. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, his parents struggled to raise six children. His father worked as a cook and his mother was a garment worker.

Lee worked his way up through the city bureaucracy. In 1989, Mayor Art Agnos appointed him as the city’s first investigator under the city’s Whistleblower Ordinance. Two years later, he became the executive director of the Human Rights Commission. By 2000, Mayor Willie Brown would appoint Lee the director of Public Works.

Ed Lee
Courtesy Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus

Lee became mayor in 2011 when then Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected Lieutenant Governor. The County Board of Supervisors struggled to rally around a temporary replacement for Newsom. After several votes, they settled on Lee who promised he would not run for election if appointed.

It was a believable promise. Lee had never run for public office before. He had no known ambitions to enter elective life.

He was just supposed to be a placeholder until his term expired in January 2012. But cries of “Run Ed Run” would be heard, largely coming from the city’s Chinese American community, who took pride in Lee becoming the city’s first Chinese American and Asian American mayor. One of the most outspoken supporters for Lee’s run was Chinatown power broker and consultant for the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the late Rose Pak.

Not only did Lee run, but he won with the backing of the city’s moderate faction. In 2015, Lee won reelection without any major opposition.


However his popularity has waned since then due largely to San Francisco’s progressive faction who felt Lee did not do enough to increase the supply of affordable housing and catered too much to the business community, particularly the tech community.

Among his critics were members of Chinatown’s liberal faction. In fact, Pak turned on Lee when he appointed Julie Christensen to serve out the remainder of David Chiu’s term in 2015 after Chiu won election to the State Assembly. Pak had lobbied Lee hard to appoint Cindy Wu, the then chair of the city’s planning commission and a member of the Chinatown Community Development Center.

Lee has also been criticized by those to the extreme right. Twitter is full of hateful tweets from those who resent his strong support for San Francisco as a sanctuary city. Many of those trolls blamed Lee for the acquittal of the most serious charges against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the undocumented immigrant who faced trial in the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco.

Having political enemies did not seem to bother Lee, according to longtime acquaintance Albert Cheng.

“Al, what enemies,” Cheng recalls to AsAmNews a smiling Lee saying to him. “Al, I don’t have any enemies.”

Albert Cheng wth Ed Lee
Albert Cheng with Ed Lee, courtesy Albert Cheng

Cheng first met Lee when he worked at the Asian Law Caucus and Cheng worked at Chinatown-North Beach Youth Council. They reconnected after Lee became mayor through Cheng’s work for Friends of Roots, an organization dedicated to connecting Chinese American youth to their heritage.

“He disarmed them (his enemies) and was able to work with different factions,” said Cheng about Lee. “He’s able to find ways to get things done. The city loves him. Obviously some disagree with him, but on the whole, the city loves him.”

Lee is survived by his wife Anita, his two daughters, Brianna and Tania.

The President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, London Breed, has stepped in as acting mayor under the city’s charter.

More details coming.

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