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San Francisco’s Inconspicuous Mayor Makes Big Changes

Ed Lee helms one of America’s most beautiful cities but also one of its most complex

Just before Thanksgiving at the St. Anthony’s Turkey Carve, city officials were gathered, ready to slice up birds for San Francisco’s homeless. And while many were engaging in boisterous conversations or brandishing knives for the cameras, one man was quietly focused on the task at hand. 

“You know how Obama is the president of the United States,” a woman in the crowd said to her child, pointing at the short, mustachioed man. “That’s Ed Lee, and he’s the mayor. That means he’s like the president of San Francisco.” 

The little girl looked at the man and took him in. “Really?”

You can’t fault the kid for her disbelief. San Francisco is known for being a flamboyant city, a place where neither the smell of marijuana at 9 a.m. nor the sight of a grown man in a tutu is likely to merit a second thought. And its politicians are usually equally colorful; the office of the mayor has been held by outsize personalities like Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom. What makes Lee so interesting is how little he has in common with his predecessors. 

Possibly the most exciting thing about San Francisco’s current mayor is how very unexciting he can seem. He’s the guy who’s been charged with making traditionally lively Board of Supervisors meetings into drab affairs—“Mayor Lee Defends Being Boring,” a local news site trumpeted when he declined to amp up the gatherings—and who asked local bars to serve something other than alcohol when the 49ers played in the 2013 Super Bowl. 

Still, Lee is presiding over an exceptional time in San Francisco’s history, one marked by outrageous growth in prestige, wealth and housing prices and also spotted with protests, inequality and, for some, a fear that the city is losing its soul. 

 

Ed Lee at the 2013 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.

Ed Lee at the 2013 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.

To the casual observer, San Francisco seems to be thriving. Unemployment is hovering around four percent and the economy is booming. “We’ve got investments like crazy, and what is the consequence of that?” Lee asks. “More people want to live here, so real estate prices go up and affordability becomes the issue.” 

To some of Lee’s constituents, however, that’s a stunning understatement. Driven by tech titans and venture capitalists, the median housing price in San Francisco is now over $1 million and rents are the most expensive in the nation. Eviction stories are commonplace and a visible backlash to the changing city has grown during Lee’s administration. Protests blocking the buses that shuttle Google employees to Mountain View have become the norm, as have demonstrations outside Twitter’s headquarters and, this past October, Lee’s own home. 

Protests also raged when Lee—behind what were reported to be locked doors guarded by deputy sheriffs—signed into law legislation that made it legal for sites like Airbnb to operate in San Francisco, an act opponents derided as the death of the city’s neighborhoods. (While it’s estimated the city will collect around $11 million annually from this type of business, challengers point out that Airbnb is also poised to be let off the hook for an estimated $25 million in back taxes.)

But, in other areas, Lee has made impressive progress. In November, voters endorsed his plan to build 30,000 new homes by 2020, the majority of which will be for low- and middle-income residents. “This city has given my administration an order to get more housing done,” Lee says of the vote. “It is a mandate in my opinion, but also they want me to do it smartly, and I will do that.”

His approach to governing isn’t without its flaws. “Fans of the mayor would say he’s responsive,” says Corey Cook, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “But critics of the mayor would say, ‘He’s not leading, he’s not a visionary. I haven’t heard him articulate where he sees the city going.’ ” 

 

It was Lee’s low-key nature that was integral to his becoming mayor when, in 2010, Gavin Newsom vaulted into the office of lieutenant governor. Newsom had one year left on his mayoral term, and the city’s Board of Supervisors needed to appoint his successor. The day of the vote, suitors were roaming the corridors of City Hall, each pleading his case. Despite this army of contenders, when the dust settled, the one person the Board of Supervisors could agree on was then-obscure City Administrator Lee, who had not expressed interest in the job and was traveling in Hong Kong at the time. Just before the final vote, a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle asked, “Who’s Ed Lee?”

In a sense, the way Lee became mayor is also how he leads: by letting people come to him. As far as he’s concerned, the people of San Francisco have assigned him tasks and his job is to perform them. His first was to lower unemployment. 

“When I came in, my mantra was jobs, jobs, jobs,” Lee says. “And for the right reasons everybody praised me, saying, ‘You recognized double-digit unemployment.’ ” Lee’s focus and success were rewarded when, after serving out Newsom’s term, he won the office outright in November 2011, becoming San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor and garnering a reported 61 percent of the vote. 

What Lee lacked in colorful behavior, he made up for in a businesslike ability to run the city. Take, for example, San Francisco’s long-held anti-corporate reputation, which Lee dispelled by offering companies tax breaks, loans and even personal phone calls asking about their needs. “I espouse those principles that help working folks kind of see a way forward,” Lee says. “I know what the sharing economy is all about because growing up I had to share everything from socks to beds.”

Lee was one of six children raised in Seattle, and as a young man he worked as a restaurant dishwasher before attending Bowdoin College and UC Berkeley law school. After graduating, he practiced as a civil rights attorney, focusing on housing rights for immigrants. In 1989, he was appointed to his first government job as San Francisco’s investigator of whistleblower complaints. Since then, he has held positions including executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and director of city purchasing, before being named city administrator in 2005. 

Throughout his career, Lee’s habit of putting personality after politics has worked in his favor. “His leadership style is very much his experience as a bureaucrat,” says Cook, the political professor. “It’s this post-partisan bringing everybody together to hammer out compromises where he’s at his best.”

And for all the criticism that Lee is doing too little, too late for housing, his background as a housing-rights attorney is providing some political cover. As Lee faces re-election in 2015, no credible candidate has emerged to challenge him. 

Asked about his re-election platform, he refers to the housing and transportation initiatives that voters have passed. “I want to be there on every occasion to say, ‘This is another example of what you voted on and I’m going to carry out,’ ” he says, leaning forward. “I’m going to get it done so that you have constant faith your government is working.”

It seemed that way at the turkey carving, where Lee yelled hellos and smiled gamely as a constituent snapped a picture of him wearing a hair net above his thick-rimmed glasses. Then, amid the din, Ed Lee turned his attention back to meticulously carving his bird, the task to which he had been assigned. 

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