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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Dies At Age 65

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died at a hospital in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He is seen here at the San Francisco Pride Parade in June.
Josh Edelson
AFP/Getty Images
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died at a hospital in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He is seen here at the San Francisco Pride Parade in June.

Updated at 9:40 p.m. ET

San Francisco's Mayor Ed Lee, most recently known for embracing the "sanctuary city" label, 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.

" 'Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Anita, his two daughters, Brianna and Tania, and his family,' the statement reads."

No cause of death was mentioned; KQED reports that Lee collapsed while shopping at a Safeway supermarket Monday night.

Edwin Lee entered city government after a career as a tenants' rights lawyer, working to preserve low-cost housing in the 1980s and tackle civil rights issues. He served as San Francisco's mayor after being appointed to the post in 2011, when he replaced the outgoing Gavin Newsom, who became lieutenant governor. At the time, Lee was a relatively unknown city administrator who said he thought he would be in the job for only a year — despite getting unanimous support from San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. He then won elections in 2011 and 2015. His term in office was to run until 2020.

Lee promoted policies to lure high-tech companies from Silicon Valley to San Francisco. And like his many predecessors, he was bedeviled by the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness in the city.

Tom Butt, mayor of the nearby city of Richmond, echoed expressions of respect heard from many chief executives across the country.

"With the wind at his back in a city still emerging from the Great Recession, he concentrated on building San Francisco into an economic powerhouse, attracting technology companies and their employees and essentially eradicating unemployment. The city's economic success, however, highlighted homelessness and dislocation and encouraged critics who longed for the good old days when the economy was lackluster and competition for housing was weaker."

When he was elected in the fall of 2011, Lee "made history by becoming the city's first elected Asian-American mayor," KQED noted.

With Lee's death, London Breed, the president of the Board of Supervisors, becomes acting mayor, according to the city's charter. She is the first African-American woman to lead the city, and the second woman.

In 1978, Sen. Dianne Feinstein became San Francisco's mayor following the assassination of George Moscone. Like Breed, Feinstein had been the president of the Board of Supervisors; she held the mayor's office for nearly 10 years.

While Feinstein is considered the grand dame of San Francisco politics even from her Senate office in Washington, D.C., Breed, a San Francisco native who grew up in a public housing project not far from City Hall, may be the ascending star.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Breed's career has not been a smooth glide.

"Friends and critics describe Breed as brash and bold — the kind of woman who was raised by a strict grandmother. But Breed's style nearly cost her her early political career. During her 2012 supervisorial race, Breed posted an expletive-laden diatribe that cost her the endorsement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

" 'She lost control of her temper,' said Breed's longtime campaign manager, Maggie Muir. 'As a campaign, we had to figure out how to deal with it. There was a divide between those who felt like it was awful, and those who appreciated it. That's London. She says what she thinks.' "

In a City Hall news conference announcing Lee's death, Breed portrayed the deceased and mild-mannered mayor as a kindred spirit. Like Lee, Breed is known as a moderate in the context of city politics.

"Ed Lee lived a life of service cut short far too soon. Like me, Ed grew up in public housing. The son of working-class immigrants, he developed early on a profound sense of community, a commitment to helping others," said Breed.

There is an irony in the fact that Lee entered public life as a tenants' rights lawyer and left it identified with policies that critics say exacerbated the city's housing crisis.

But Lee's supporters say the critics have it wrong.

"People don't talk about the revamping of public housing that he's done all throughout the city," the chief of San Francisco's Human Services Agency, Trent Rhorer, told KQED. "People don't talk about him looking at me and saying, 'Let's get 500 families out of poverty' and funding that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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