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The Secret, Longhair, Radical Activist History of Mayor Ed Lee

Updated: Apr 02, 2016 15:25
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Get this — SF Mayor Ed Lee was once a radical tenants’ rights activist back in the 1970s. Yes, I said tenants’ rights activist. The same Ed Lee who currently presides over a stratospheric real estate boom that’s evicting unprecedented numbers of ethnic working class families and elderly people once dedicated his life to fighting evictions of  — you guessed it  —  ethnic working class families and elderly people.

The turning of Ed Lee from community organizer in the 1970s to the pro-development mayor of today is some truly Shakespearean/Anakin Skywalker kind of shit. Let’s go sunshine truckin’ for a cool ride back to the 1970s, with the help of David Talbot’s excellent historical volume “Season of the Witch” (Free Press, 2011) and Chris A. Smith’s delightful 2013 San Francisco magazine longform piece Why is Ed Lee so Happy?, from which we get that 1974 Ed Lee ‘mullet’ photo above that makes me so happy.

The Ping Yuen Rent Strike (1978)

Ed Lee City Hall protest (Image courtesy that bizarre Ed Lee biography that an independent expenditure group put on every San Franciscans doorstep during the 2011 election.

Ed Lee was not always a City Hall bureaucrat. Here we see him protesting at City Hall. Straight out of UC Berkeley  in 1978, Lee declined lucrative corporate work and instead took a community organizer position at the Asian Law Caucus. David Talbot’s “Season the Witch” takes us back to 1978 and tells us more.

“Ed Lee, a Rhodes Scholarship finalist and UC Berkeley Law School graduate, could have joined his classmates who went to work for elite corporate law firms. Most of the Chinese kids he knew in professional schools were practical; they went for the money. But Lee was too angry and rebellious to go down that path.”

Lee took an interest in one particularly broken-down SF Chinatown housing project called Ping Yuen, where he encouraged residents to refuse to pay their rent until the building was brought up to code. The brutal rape and murder of resident Julia Wong  —  in an unlit stairway she had to use because the elevators didn’t work  — galvanized tenants to take Lee’s advice and stop paying their rent.

“Ping Yuen’s outraged residents unfurled a banner over an upper-floor balcony announcing a rent strike. Housing authority bureaucrats were stunned. Chinese residents were the most dependable renters in the city’s public housing system; they always paid on time.

When they started withholding their monthly payments, the housing authority immediately felt the financial pinch. After six months, housing officials caved, agreeing to make a long list of improvements at Ping Yuen.”

Can you imagine the Ed Lee of today advocating for a rent strike? In this economy? He would sooner have his moustache served over grilled polenta in the Twitter cafeteria.

Ed Lee Agitates, Sues Everyone in Power 

Image courtesy “Ed Lee: An Unexpected Mayor“.

Ping Yuen was not a one-time deal. Ed Lee spent ten years taking City Hall’s ass to court over every perceived slight to the working class Asian American community. Take it away, Chris A. Smith in San Francisco magazine….

“Lee spent a decade at the Law Caucus, and he filed a lot of lawsuits. He sued the San Francisco Police Department over height requirements that excluded most Asian candidates; he sued the city’s fire department for racial hazing; and he sued the family associations, Chinatown’s traditional bosses, over development projects that would have bulldozed the neighborhood’s past.”

In 1989, then-mayor Art Agnos got the bright idea to co-opt Lee into the City Hall bureaucracy by offering him a “whistleblower” position. Lee’s induction to the bureaucratic establishment went swimmingly. Lee patiently counted beans, climbed ladders, got promoted and was installed as mayor by the Board of Supervisors (not elected!) in 2011, promising to not seek reelection. Lee has sought reelection and remains mayor today.

Ed Lee is Making Nothing Off the Tech Boom

Protest outside Ed Lee’s house, courtesy SFist. (Ed Lee’s house not pictured).

I recently covered a protest outside Ed Lee’s house organized by Eviction Free San Francisco. I was shocked to see what a modest little home Ed Lee and his family live in. Mayor Lee lives in a flat. A flat! The place is probably a TIC. Oh sure, he lives in a nice neighborhood. But Ed Lee’s house is one of the dumpiest on the block.

Ed Lee has presided over the greatest influx of wealth our city has ever seen, and he does not appear to have gotten a dime of this money. Compare this  to the lifestyles of our large-living previous mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom. Gavin would blow nine grand a month on hair product while we had 10% unemployment. Now it’s boom times again, and our mayor lives in a flat and drives a budget sedan.

Mayor Lee has to realize this. He must know that he is turning billionaires into trillionaires daily, but continues to live a relatively modest, affordable civil-servant lifestyle. He makes less money than a San Francisco fireman. Does this frustrate him? Is he proud of it? I have no idea what goes through that man’s mind when he contemplates the vast wealth transference he has facilitated, but enjoyed none of.

But I do know that back in the 1970s, Ed Lee was one badass motherfucker.

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.


  1. Morgan Fitzgibbons
    November 14, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Just because Ed Lee doesn’t live in a big house doesn’t mean he isn’t on the take.

    • November 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm


      • 1llish
        March 30, 2016 at 12:09 pm

        Duh. Doesn’t this story teach us he’s smarter than that?

  2. October 30, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Contrary many don’t have, privy of “conservative” NAIOP controlled Ed plea, impartial housing rights? Blight is “intense” fight admire prior biography “advocate” of equality what happen? Heritage: irrelevant Ed, politician seeking higher ground yes, corporate induce sadly rhetoric and tricks Ed going reelected. Those believing “dreams” reality renters rights taken away Ed” instead remained aloof mention “TIC” slated approved lottery system. 2,800 renowned neighborhoods, whom Castro,Noe Valley,Mission,Mid-market and Cole Valley recourse Ed”, saying 30,000 “BMR” units inaccurate going worsen. Pro gentrification time for change not strange I’ll you at the polls awaiting change of renters policies no more aggressive tactics!

  3. Pacificvs
    March 30, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    It’s almost as though the housing crisis is caused by regional failures decades in the making and largely outside Ed Lee’s control.