Edwin M. Lee, a civil-rights lawyer and housing activist who became the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco, died early Tuesday morning. Lee was purchasing groceries at Safeway when he suffered a heart attack, and was pronounced dead at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital hours later, former mayor Willie Brown told the San Francisco Examiner.
“It is with profound sadness and terrible grief that we confirm that Mayor Edwin M. Lee passed away,” the city said in a statement. “Family, friends, and colleagues were at his side. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Anita, his two daughters, Brianna and Tania, and his family.”
London Breed, president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, is now San Francisco’s acting mayor.
Lee was born to Chinese immigrants in Seattle. He became the first member of his family to receive a higher education when he secured a full scholarship to Bowdoin College. After studying law at Berkeley, he worked with the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus to advance the causes of civil rights and affordable housing. Lee spent ten years pushing for reforms from outside the government before trying his luck at the inside game. The former activist labored in five different city departments under four separate mayors, during a decades-long career that included stints as San Francisco’s human-rights commissioner and city administrator.
Lee held the latter post when Mayor Gavin Newsom resigned to become California’s lieutenant governor — and the Board of Supervisors named Lee acting mayor in January 2011. The career civil servant expressed ambivalence about holding his new, high-profile gig on a permanent basis. But Lee ultimately chose to run for election the following November, and secured a historic victory on the strength of his support from the city’s Asian-American community.
Lee’s tenure was a challenging one: The booming technology industry turned San Francisco real estate into an increasingly coveted investment vehicle. The crisis of affordable housing in the city deepened. And Lee often appeared no better equipped to combat it in the mayor’s office than he was as an activist attorney.
“Decades ago, I was about as anti-establishment as one could be,” Lee said at his first swearing in. “But today, like you, I’m trying to make the establishment work for all San Franciscans.”
Here’s hoping London Breed, or Lee’s next successor, is ready to take up that task.