San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee had "a long history of breaking barriers," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. Lee spent part of his childhood in public housing and attended Franklin High School.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died suddenly early Tuesday, was a Seattle-born son of Chinese immigrants who spent part of his childhood in public housing and attended Franklin High School. He was 65.
Lee had “a long history of breaking barriers — he was the first member of his family to attend college then became the first Asian American to lead San Francisco,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement.
“He was a true public servant who championed civil rights,” Durkan added. “His loss is a loss for Seattle. From his hometown, our city sends our condolences to Ed’s friends, families, and colleagues as well as the residents of San Francisco — the city he loved so dearly.”
As mayor, Lee oversaw a tech-industry boom and grappled with a housing crisis while defending his city’s sanctuary policies toward immigrants. First elected in 2011, he persuaded voters to give him a second-term in 2015.
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He died at a San Francisco hospital surrounded by relatives, friends and colleagues, his office said. Lee was shopping at a neighborhood supermarket when he collapsed with a heart attack, Willie Brown, a former mayor of the city, told the San Francisco Examiner.
Lee had come a long way since his time in Seattle. He was the fifth of six children and his parents – who hailed from a rural village in southeast China – struggled to make ends meet.
His father worked as a cook and his mother as a seamstress, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story last year about Lee’s push to renovate thousands of units of public housing in the Bay Area city.
Working alongside his father, Lee witnessed racism, he recalled in a 2013 interview with Fortune.
“There were a couple of incidents in the restaurant where he had to take food to Caucasian customers and he would get cursed out” and called racial epithets, he said.
After his father suffered a fatal heart attack, Lee washed dishes at the Ruby Chow restaurant, he told the Chronicle. “I was a sophomore,” he said, remembering life on Beacon Hill. “We were in shock. But we did sense that all of us were going to have to go to work.”
At Franklin, Lee was class president and was mentored by older student Gary Locke, who went on to become a Washington governor, according to the Fortune profile titled “Everyman Ed Lee.”
A trip to Europe with a high school choir was eye-opening for Lee, introducing him to the world outside Seattle, friend and fellow choir member Ellison Horne said Tuesday.
Horne also settled as an adult in San Francisco, where he watched Lee’s ascent with pride and a little trepidation, worrying the stress of big-city politics would wear on the mustachioed mayor widely known as low-key and openhearted.
“His story is monumental,” said Horne, 65, a video producer. “It’s a true American story of hard work, coming from poverty and becoming a leading figure in society.”
A history teacher encouraged Lee to apply to private Bowdoin College in Maine, setting the young man on a path that led to a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, an early career dedicated to renters and civil rights and an introduction to politics.
Lee headed San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, then held several other roles in the city’s government, including public-works director and city administrator.
Appointed interim mayor in 2011 after Gavin Newsom left the job to become California’s lieutenant governor, Lee won election later that year.
Supporters praised Lee for helping San Francisco rebound from the recession, while detractors said his administration was too kind to the tech industry, pointing to a tax break that brought Twitter and other companies to a stretch of downtown.
The city’s economic explosion contributed to the challenges Lee confronted. Mirroring trends in Seattle, some residents prospered while runaway housing costs pushed many others out of San Francisco and homeless encampments cropped up on sidewalks.
A special connection with some of his constituents stemmed from his understanding of Cantonese and Taishanese, languages spoken by many San Francisco immigrants, multiple news outlets noted Tuesday.
“I am able to make a link to the Asian communities,” he told Northwest Asian Weekly in 2011, explaining the signifance of his election. “Being mayor helps them to know that they no longer are second-class citizens.”
This story has been corrected. An earlier version included an inaccuracy about Gary Locke’s time in high school.