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Edwin Lee, San Francisco's First Asian-American Mayor, Dies At 65


Edwin Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, has died at the age of 65. He'd been in office since 2012, the city's first Asian-American mayor. We're going to talk this through with Scott Shafer, who's a reporter with our member station KQED in San Francisco. Scott, what happened to the mayor?

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Well, best we can tell, Steve, the mayor died suddenly. I was at the San Francisco General Hospital and bumped into the city's fire chief who told me that it wasn't confirmed but it was her understanding that he had been out shopping at a grocery store with his wife last night around 10 o'clock. And this is when suddenly he became ill.

INSKEEP: You get a sense listening to the fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, that this is very personal for her. Let's give a listen.


JOANNE HAYES-WHITE: Great man to work for, loved this city, great leader. Over the years, not just my boss but became a good friend, too. So my heart's broken, really. And I think when the news starts to break more in the city, I think a lot of people will feel that way.

INSKEEP: Would you help explain that for people outside of San Francisco, Scott Shafer? I'm thinking about how a mayor sometimes comes to personify the city or some part of the city. What role did this mayor play in San Francisco's daily life?

SHAFER: Well, you know, going back to how he became mayor, Steve, he was an accidental mayor. He had never run for office before. Gavin Newsom, who had been mayor, was elected lieutenant governor. And the Board of Supervisors had to pick someone to replace him. Ed Lee at that time was the head - he was a bureaucrat. Really no one knew who he was outside of the Asian community and the city family, really. And he was plucked from obscurity, became mayor, said he was going to just fill out Newsom's term for 11 months and then not run himself.

But he did. He changed his mind, and he became mayor once and then reelected again in 2015. Very mild-mannered, first Asian-American mayor in the city's history. Everyone would say he was a nice guy, very closely aligned with the tech community, which had some downside for a lot of people. He pushed for tax breaks for Twitter to keep them in the city, succeeded. And as a result, that part of Market Street in the city's corridor downtown near City Hall has exploded with growth.

The downside, affordability - a lot of people got pushed out. There's more luxury housing and fancy restaurants going in. So by all means, it was a success in terms of what it intended to do. But a lot of controversy over the impact of tech looming so large right now in San Francisco. So that was something he was dealing with, the affordable housing crisis, right up to the last time - minutes of his term in office.

INSKEEP: Really expensive city to live in. I want to ask very briefly about being the first Asian-American mayor. I'm thinking this is a city with a huge Chinatown and a great Chinese history, but also there's a history in California of massive prejudice, Chinese exclusion laws. What does it mean to have an Asian-American mayor?

SHAFER: Well, it was huge. I mean, we'd had an Asian-American - a couple of police chiefs and some prominent politicians. And there were people behind the scenes who were Asian-American but Ed Lee the very first to become mayor. You know, many of the city's Asian-Americans are immigrants. They don't speak English. Many of them don't vote or can't vote. So Ed Lee really was a hero to many in Chinatown and beyond in San Francisco in terms of the Asian-American community.

INSKEEP: Scott Shafer of KQED, thank you very much.

SHAFER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Thank you. And again, the news today is that Edwin Lee, mayor of San Francisco, has died at 65. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer

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