Politics

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee dies at age 65

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He's seen here with his wife, Anita Lee, at a NASA event earlier this month.
San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He's seen here with his wife, Anita Lee, at a NASA event earlier this month.
Jesse Grant/Getty Images

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the city's first elected Asian-American mayor, who was known for embracing the "Sanctuary City" label and working to combat homelessness, has died at age 65. Lee was not known to be ill; he reportedly died at a San Francisco hospital in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Member station KQED cites a statement from the mayor's office, saying he died at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital:

Lee, the city's 43rd mayor, died at 1:11 a.m. as relatives, friends and colleagues were at his side, according to a statement from the mayor's office.

No cause of death was mentioned, but KQED's Marisa Lagos told KPCC there were reports that Lee collapsed at a store while shopping on Monday night and that those close to him said it looked like a heart attack. 

"This is one of those moments where the so-called city family really unites," Lagos said. "Everyone I've talked to, from folks who work in the mayor's office, who are obviously just devastated, to supervisors and other city officials who've sparred with him over the years, I think are just deeply in grief and really just trying to wrap their heads around this."

Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who preceded Lee as San Francisco's mayor, ordered flags at the Capitol and on all state buildings throughout California to be flown at half-staff in memorial.

"Jennifer and I are absolutely heartbroken by the news of Mayor Lee's passing," Newsom said. In a written statement, he continued:

"San Francisco has lost a selfless leader, a dedicated servant to the public, and a tireless bearer of equality's torch.

"His intellect, unshakable integrity, boundless optimism and contagious love for San Francisco elevated the City to greater heights. He steered San Francisco with an unshakable hand, an indomitable spirit, and a great sense of humor."

Gov. Jerry Brown also issued a statement, saying "Ed was a true champion for working people and epitomized the California spirit. He'll truly be missed."

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Lee "left us too soon."

"Mayor Lee was a dedicated public servant who gave his all for the City of San Francisco. He demonstrated a commitment to improving and empowering humanity through his years fighting for civil rights and economic progress," Becerra said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called Lee a "true progressive, a fighter" who believed in government's ability to help people.

"Ed Lee’s unfaltering belief in justice, fairness, and equality for all not only served San Francisco, it touched people throughout California and the world. His life and leadership were rooted in a powerful sense of human decency that inspired me," Garcetti said in a statement.

David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University, was a friend of Edwin Lee. He said the mayor was not a politician but a San Franciscan, first and foremost.

"He had a reputation for being a fierce advocate for community," Lee said. "He fought for more affordable housing at a time when Chinese were marginalized in the city."

Ed Lee also worked to encourage more Asian-Americans to vote and run for office. Just a week before his death, the mayor was concerned about the lack of Asian-American leadership in government at a time when Asians make up a third of San Francisco's population, David Lee said.

Lee presided as mayor as the city's tech boom gained momentum in recent years. But while he was able to successfully bring many tech giants to San Francisco, critics contend that it accelerated the city's ongoing housing crisis.

Edwin Lee entered city government after a career as a tenants rights lawyer, working to preserve low-cost housing in the 1980s and to tackle civil rights issues. He served as San Francisco's mayor after being appointed in 2011 to replace Gavin Newsom, who was elected lieutenant governor. At the time, Lee was a relatively unknown city administrator who said he thought he'd only be in the job for a year — despite getting unanimous support from San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

Lee then won elections in 2011 and 2015. His term in office was to run through 2020.

Rep. Judy Chu, who referred to Lee as a "dear and wise friend," called him a principled leader who chose to champion the homeless even as he was pushing to make his city a global symbol of success. In a statement, Chu said:

"Growing up as the son of immigrants and one of six children in Seattle public housing, Ed faced both economic hardship and racial prejudice. As a lawyer, these experiences would continue to inspire his work, whether helping residents of a public housing project to organize or standing up for women and people of color in the workforce. His drive to succeed made him the first in his family to graduate college. Later, as mayor, his geniality made him a consensus builder, which enabled him to lift up communities so none would feel excluded."

Here is Lee in 2015 discussing new measures to help tackle homelessness in San Francisco:

Video

With Lee's death, KQED reports, "London Breed, the president of the Board of Supervisors, becomes acting mayor, according to city charter."

Lee is survived by his wife, Anita, and his two daughters, Brianna and Tania. Brianna Lee is a producer for KPCC.

This story has been updated.