San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee: The Art and Soul of Civic Leadership

Ed Lee never took himself too seriously, but he was serious about the work he did.

As mayor of San Francisco, he had the ultimate political job, but he was less politician than dedicated, passionate civil servant. A lot of people get elected to public office never having run something. Ed had four different city management jobs before he became mayor.

Because Ed had practiced the art of making government work, he also understood what it means to ask a department head to take a major action. He put that wisdom to work, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

Weeks before Ed took his oath as mayor for a second term in 2016, San Francisco police officers shot and killed Mario Woods, an unarmed black man, in the Bayview neighborhood. The inauguration was overshadowed by protests and angry pleas to fire then-Police Chief Ed Suhr. If he fired the police chief, Ed would have scored immediate political points. But he was more focused on making lasting improvements in the police department, which he believed he could do more effectively if Suhr remained in his post. So Ed invited the US Justice Department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Police Department, and he pledged from the outset to enact every one of their recommendations. In time, Chief Suhr would step down, and the Justice Department’s recommendations have provided a lasting framework for implementing and tracking reform.

Ed was the pride of the Asian American community, and he will be remembered for being San Francisco’s first Asian American mayor. Still, he worked hard to be the mayor for everybody. We live in a time where some would-be leaders try to obtain and hold power by dividing us along racial and ethnic lines. Ed understood the value of diversity and the need for unity. That’s just who he was.

Fighting for the City’s Most Vulnerable

Ed was at his best as a champion of serving San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents. He grew up in Seattle in public housing, and it motivated him to do whatever he could to ensure that all families have a roof over their heads in a safe and stable environment. He intimately understood the challenges and contributions of immigrants and worked hard to ensure that they got a fair shake in City Hall. In declaring San Francisco a sanctuary city, he defended their rights and safety.

Even though Ed guided the city through a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, he was keenly aware that a segment of his city was being completely left behind. He was a major player in HOPE SF, the nation’s first large-scale effort to transform public housing in ways that eliminate concentrated poverty, reduce social isolation, and create vibrant mixed-income communities. For this public-private initiative, Ed was a stalwart fighter for the public. He used his experience and knowledge of city government to enable his housing, public health, education, and economic development teams to work toward a common vision of a thriving community. He did not do this out of obligation. It came from his soul.

The world lost Ed too soon — and at a time when his thoughtful approach to civic leadership is needed more than ever. Anyone who is serious about a role in public office will not find a more worthy role model than Ed Lee.

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