RIP Mayor Ed Lee, My Sometimes Nemesis
When the alarm went off this morning I looked at my phone and saw I had eight texts, all from a variety of unconnected people. Considering my birthday is in four days, my first thought in that foggy, not quite awake state was “is it my birthday?” I looked at the date and it wasn’t, so my next thought was, “Oh shit, what did my big mouth get me into now?” It wouldn’t be the first time I’d woken up to a shit-storm of my own creation.
I opened the first message and saw the news “San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Dead at 65”. Bolting up in bed I said to my girlfriend, “Holy shit! Ed Lee died!” and as I clicked the link my phone followed suit. “Fuck, my phone just died too. Can you call me a cab? I need to get to my computer.”
My distaste for Mayor Ed Lee is no secret. Before, during, and after the 2015 mayoral campaign in which we were adversaries, I hammered him relentlessly for political corruption and for selling out San Francisco to the highest bidder. His dislike of me was also well known. While acknowledging me publicly would only give credence to my position, sources at City Hall informed me that I was referred to as “an abomination” within the Mayor’s Office. If it’s true that you can only judge a man by his enemies, I must be doing something right.
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Before I continue I need to lay a few things out: this is not going to be the hit piece some of you are expecting. I may not agree with much of what Ed Lee did as San Francisco’s Mayor but I do believe he loved this city and wanted the best for it. Unfortunately, his vision of what was “best” for San Francisco often excluded anyone who made under $150,000 a year. This also isn’t an attack on him as a human being. From what I’ve been told by nearly everyone who knew him, Ed Lee was a kind and caring man who loved to joke and was genuinely fun to be around. My heart goes out to his family and friends who are mourning him on this sad day and are heartbroken by his unexpected passing. It’s also important to acknowledge that Ed Lee was San Francisco’s first Chinese-American and first Asian-American mayor, which is an incredible achievement especially given SF’s ugly anti-Chinese history. Thank you Mayor Lee for breaking that barrier.
So no, this will not be a hit piece. What this will be however is an anchor to the reality of what has befallen San Francisco under Ed Lee’s stewardship. As all the articles rolling in right now only give the mayor praise – for fear of speaking ill of the dead – it’s important that we not let his untimely passing wash away the irreversible damage his policies have done to the fabric of San Francisco. It’s important that those of us who lost our home, both literally and metaphorically, get to have our voices heard in how his legacy is defined.
To be perfectly blunt, Mayor Ed Lee oversaw the destruction of much of what made San Francisco special. Despite the hills and the Victorians and the fog and the bay, the thing that truly set San Francisco apart from everywhere else in the world was the people. For decades San Francisco was the place you went if you didn’t fit in anywhere else. If you were queer, an immigrant, an artist, a polyamorist, an anarchist, a freak, a dreamer, or just someone who wanted to live as their true self, San Francisco is where you went. It was also home to a thriving pro-union working class who were just as proud to say they lived in San Francisco as the weirdos who kept washing up on the shore. But all that disappears when a city becomes so unaffordable that the median rent is $4300. And while Mayor Lee wasn’t the one actually raising the rent, the policies that he set forth provided the perfectly fertile ground for greedy landlords and rapacious real estate developers to do anything they damn well pleased.
While the idea behind the “Twitter Tax Breaks” wasn’t terrible, what they wrought was. Sure they allowed San Francisco to have one of the lowest unemployment rates of any major city after the Great Recession, but the problem was, those jobs didn’t go to San Franciscans who had lost their jobs in 2009. People were imported from all over the world to fill the newly created jobs as well as fill the newly vacated homes that the jobless had to give up. And it was there, that very moment, that set the tenor for what San Francisco was to become. Ed Lee and his big money tech industry backers had a vision of San Francisco as the tech center of the world and since 2011 they’ve done a damn good job of making it so. All it cost was the soul of the most interesting, vibrant, and unique city in America. A handful of people got tremendously wealthy, everyone else got an apartment that cost them half their salary in rent.
Ed Lee started out on the side of the people. He fought against landlords and struggled for poor and working-class people. He even organized a rent strike in Chinatown to protest fucked-up living conditions. He then decided to join the system he fought against to try and change it from the inside. It seems it changed him.
Despite being a housing rights activist in his younger days, San Francisco saw skyrocketing evictions during Ed Lee’s time as mayor. But when given the opportunity to slow this by pushing stricter laws for AirBnB – laws that would make it tougher for people to evict tenants and turn their places into poorly regulated AirBnB hotels – he stepped aside and basically let AirBnb write the law that governed it. It was no secret that Mayor Lee’s biggest financial backer was Ron Conway, a major investor in AirBnB.
The same Twitter Tax Break that kept these tech companies in SF allowed it’s beneficiaries to avoid paying $34 million in taxes in 2014 alone. Imagine what that money could’ve done if we put it towards affordable housing or our homelessness epidemic.
Speaking of the homelessness epidemic, Mayor Lee’s treatment of the homeless during Super Bowl 50 was despicable. The City of San Francisco threw a $5 million party for a football game happening 45 miles away. Because of that, the mayor had the police push all the homeless folks out of downtown so that they wouldn’t be on camera for the rest of the world to see. Instead of fixing our problem he swept it under the rug…or at least under the freeway where the homeless encampment stretched a mile long.
Under Lee San Francisco became a Dickensian story of wealth disparity. I called it a Tale of Three Cities in my SF Examiner column. We have a worse wealth disparity than Rwanda. While homelessness has always been a problem in San Francisco, over just a few years we became a place with such an immense consolidation of wealth that our homelessness epidemic wasn’t just a problem, it was an embarrassment. With initiatives like the Navigation Centers it often felt like Mayor Lee’s heart was in the right place but he didn’t have the political will do anything about it
Ed Lee wanted to be thought of as “The Tech Mayor” and I honestly think he deserves that title, but not in the way he imagined. His devotion to the all mighty dollar of the tech industry did very little for the people of San Francisco. It’s given us horrible traffic, egregious rents, an exacerbated homelessness crisis, and a city full of self-entitled assholes who don’t actually give a shit about San Francisco because they don’t plan on being here long enough to do so.
The thing about San Francisco is that while we fight vehemently about the things we disagree on, we also tend to agree on a great deal of liberal principles. Ed Lee would’ve been considered a pretty liberal mayor in many other cities, but San Francisco is at the vanguard of progressivism, and for most of us he just wasn’t liberal enough. That said, for a guy who rarely took a stand, it was heartening to see him stand up for immigrants and for sanctuary cities.
The Political Right has used the tragic death of Kate Steinle as a bludgeon to attack immigrants and the cities where they live. I remember seeing Ed Lee on national TV standing up for our immigrant neighbors in the face of hateful conservative rhetoric. I turned to whoever was standing next to me, and said “I don’t like much of what that guys stands for, but I love that motherfucker right now.” And at that moment, I really did.
This morning somebody directed me to the comments section on the Breitbart article about Mayor Lee’s passing. All of the 1000+ comments were hideous and nasty, full of venom and hate for immigrants, sanctuary cities, and many of the values we San Franciscans hold dear. And it was then that I felt closest to Ed Lee, closer than I had ever felt before. While he and I disagreed about pretty much everything about San Francisco, we at least agreed on one thing: all those racist, homophobic, white supremacist Trump supporters could kiss our beautiful San Francisco asses.
Rest in Peace Mayor Ed Lee.