Just a few days ago, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was in the Tenderloin picking up garbage, a disgusting job if ever there was one. Wearing a neon yellow vest and using a metal grabber and plastic bag, he helped the Fix-It Team he created clean up after homeless people.
As mayor of California’s fourth largest city, Lee didn’t have to do that, but he did it every few weeks – a testament to the kind of man that he was.
“When the end comes and that’s it, I’m going to feel OK,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle for a story that ran this past weekend, “that I did everything I could to help the city.”
A bespectacled man who had made his career as a civil rights attorney and then in a series of bureaucratic positions, Lee was the first to admit that he was no Gavin Newsom, no Willie Brown, no Art Agnos, no Dianne Feinstein, no George Moscone, no Joe Alioto. But history will remember Lee not merely as a politician, but as a true public servant.
He wasn’t flashy, even as the city’s first Asian American mayor. The son of immigrants from China was self-effacing and understated. He talked about collaboration and consensus. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself. In fact, it was Lee’s claim to fame that when Newsom’s rise to lieutenant governor in 2011 prompted the vacancy at San Francisco City Hall, he didn’t really want to be mayor.
Nonetheless, when the city, back on its heels from the devastating recession, needed unity and guidance, it was Lee who willingly stepped up – and without fanfare.
On his watch, San Francisco came roaring back with a redoubled tech economy, an influx of high-paying jobs and a housing market to match. It was a recovery that, as Newsom later put it, was like “drinking from a fire hose.”
And when Lee died unexpectedly on Tuesday, hours after collapsing while shopping at a Safeway store near his home, the whole world paid attention – not just to mourn the father of two, but to ponder the loss of a steady hand in a city of worldwide consequence.
San Francisco isn’t just the smaller, quainter of California’s two most famous cities. It’s the hub of an economy that encompasses much of Northern California and drives the tech sector all over the globe. It matters who is mayor of San Francisco because San Francisco matters.
We salute his leadership.