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Through Mayor Ed Lee, Diversity Served a Community, a City, a Nation

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died early Dec. 12 after collapsing from a heart attack, was more than the city’s first mayor of Chinese descent.  At age 65, he had become a symbol of Asian American diversity, one of the first in his generation to break through barriers to show what happens when those of us previously shut out can do for everyone in society.

In doing so, he became one of the great examples of diversity in public service and an advocate for higher ed, as the San Francisco campus of the University of California expanded under his tenure.

For a city that is more than a third Asian, Lee became San Francisco’s first Asian American leader in 2011 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsome vacated the spot to become lieutenant governor.

As former Mayor Willie Brown said last week, when it came to a choice on who to succeed Newsome, it was clear that Lee was the choice on merit alone.

Lee had been one of the first beneficiaries of the civil rights era when opportunities in education were beginning in American society.

A bright student who grew up in public housing in Seattle, Lee was the first in his family to attend college, earning admission to Bowdoin College in Maine, more than 3,000 miles from his home.

After graduation, Lee attended University of California’s Boalt Law School in Berkeley. It was as a civil rights lawyer in Chinatown fighting for public housing where he made his name in the community.

When Lee transitioned to government, he also added to his civil rights interests within the bureaucracy, including the public works of the entire city. After running two major city agencies, he became chief administrator for San Francisco.

When the mayoral vacancy opened up, Lee wasn’t a political pick.

He was not a politician, but a bureaucrat. It was all about competence.

Of course, it was still politics. But Lee was able to traverse the landmines with a smile–to the chagrin of political opponents.

In one notable betrayal, Lee had promised another candidate he would not to run for Mayor after being appointed, but then changed his mind.

But how could his opponent argue, when Lee was able to win a general election in 2011, then deliver on the job well enough to win again in 2015. Lee’s nice guy, almost non-political approach allowed him to bring people together and make things run smoothly.

It helped Lee on the causes that were most important to him—affordable housing, ending homelessness, and raising the minimum wage.

He was also a friend to higher ed. During the Lee years, the University of California’s footprint in San Francisco expanded considerably with plans to grow the campus by a third throughout the city. Lee’s city stewardship has helped maintain UCSF’s leadership in the health sciences.

University of California President Janet Napolitano said in a statement following news of Lee’s death: “Today the city of San Francisco lost an intrepid leader, a fierce civil rights advocate and a tireless public servant. I extend my deepest condolences to Mayor Lee’s family and friends during this trying time, as San Francisco mourns the death of its biggest champion. Mayor Lee will be sorely missed.”

Lee represented a generation in the nation’s civil rights history. When opportunities opened up, Lee took full advantage of every one.  He not only helped himself and his family, but as a public servant, he gave back as he became a regional and national presence, the leader of one of the country’s major cities.

Ed Lee led an exemplary life. His was the fulfillment of the promise of diversity.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the civil rights group AALDEF at

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