Why Mayor Ed Lee mattered beyond San Francisco – especially in Sacramento

A visual look back at San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's tenure

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died suddenly early Tuesday, December 12, 2017, at age 65.
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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died suddenly early Tuesday, December 12, 2017, at age 65.

Just a few days ago, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was in the Tenderloin picking up garbage, a disgusting job if ever there was one. Wearing a neon yellow vest and using a metal grabber and plastic bag, he helped the Fix-It Team he created clean up after homeless people.

As mayor of California’s fourth largest city, Lee didn’t have to do that, but he did it every few weeks – a testament to the kind of man that he was.

“When the end comes and that’s it, I’m going to feel OK,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle for a story that ran this past weekend, “that I did everything I could to help the city.”

Lee died early Tuesday at the far-too-young-age of 65. In a city renowned for big-personality mayors, he was surely the exception who proved the rule.

A bespectacled man who had made his career as a civil rights attorney and then in a series of bureaucratic positions, Lee was the first to admit that he was no Gavin Newsom, no Willie Brown, no Art Agnos, no Dianne Feinstein, no George Moscone, no Joe Alioto. But history will remember Lee not merely as a politician, but as a true public servant.

He wasn’t flashy, even as the city’s first Asian American mayor. The son of immigrants from China was self-effacing and understated. He talked about collaboration and consensus. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself. In fact, it was Lee’s claim to fame that when Newsom’s rise to lieutenant governor in 2011 prompted the vacancy at San Francisco City Hall, he didn’t really want to be mayor.

Nonetheless, when the city, back on its heels from the devastating recession, needed unity and guidance, it was Lee who willingly stepped up – and without fanfare.

On his watch, San Francisco came roaring back with a redoubled tech economy, an influx of high-paying jobs and a housing market to match. It was a recovery that, as Newsom later put it, was like “drinking from a fire hose.”

And when Lee died unexpectedly on Tuesday, hours after collapsing while shopping at a Safeway store near his home, the whole world paid attention – not just to mourn the father of two, but to ponder the loss of a steady hand in a city of worldwide consequence.

San Francisco isn’t just the smaller, quainter of California’s two most famous cities. It’s the hub of an economy that encompasses much of Northern California and drives the tech sector all over the globe. It matters who is mayor of San Francisco because San Francisco matters – increasingly even to Sacramento.

The capital city has, under Mayor Darrell Steinberg, tied its fortunes to those of San Francisco. Each day, more than 100,000 Sacramento-area residents commute to the Bay Area, and nearly another 100,000 come here to work.

There’s a reason why Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, spends so much of his time in San Francisco, lobbying priced-out companies to move their offices and employees here instead of relocating to equally cheap Texas or Arizona.

While prices for swanky new condos continue to climb to astronomical heights in the Bay Area, they are more manageable here.

The way Broome puts it, if Sacramento can grab 10 percent of the jobs leaving the Bay Area, Sacramento will be “economically bulletproof.” A mega-region is the goal – and for Sacramento, long without a viable industry other than government, it’s finally within reach.

Lee did everything he could to make that happen. We salute his leadership.

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