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Asian bar association honors Ed Lee at gala

by Cynthia Laird

AABA President David Tsai, left, presents the Trailblazer Award (posthumously) to Anita Lee, widow of San Francisco mayor Ed Lee. Behind them are, from left, Catherine Ngo, Judge Edward Chen, Esther Leong, and Don Tamaki. Photo: Francis Tsang
AABA President David Tsai, left, presents the Trailblazer Award (posthumously) to Anita Lee, widow of San Francisco mayor Ed Lee. Behind them are, from left, Catherine Ngo, Judge Edward Chen, Esther Leong, and Don Tamaki. Photo: Francis Tsang  

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was posthumously honored by the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area at its annual gala last week, with former colleagues calling him a great mayor who had humble beginnings fighting poverty and racism in the Asian community.

Lee's widow, Anita Lee, accepted the Trailblazer Award on her late husband's behalf, but did not make any remarks.

"He represented the poorest in San Francisco," Don Tamaki of Minami Tamaki LLP, said in a tribute that preceded the award. He called it "ironic" that Lee eventually went to work for the city "when he spent so many years suing the city" as the managing attorney of the Asian Law Caucus.

On December 12, Lee, 65, suffered a heart attack and died.

Lee's tenure - he was the city's first Asian-American mayor - was marked by "good judgment," Tamaki said, because of his work at the law caucus. Lee worked for various city departments before being tapped by former mayor Gavin Newsom to be city administrator. When Newsom left City Hall in January 2011 to become lieutenant governor, the Board of Supervisors appointed Lee as mayor. He went on to win election in November 2011, and was re-elected in 2015.

The March 22 gala drew hundreds of people to the Bently Reserve in downtown San Francisco.

David Tsai, a partner in Vinson and Elkins LLP's San Francisco office and AABA's first gay board president, spoke of his parents' instilling in him the belief of "better together, stronger together," which was the evening's theme.

"My parents were immigrants from Taiwan. As minorities in Michigan, my parents taught us what a privilege it is to be American," Tsai said.

Tsai, 42, said his parents initially taught him and his sister to "fit in and not complain."
"When people made fun of us for being Asian, we were quiet," Tsai said.

But that all changed when an Asian man was murdered in Detroit.

"My parents could no longer sit by," he said, adding that they made posters and T-shirts and he watched as they marched with others in Detroit, protesting the killing.

When Tsai came out to his mother, she asked him if he would still work on Asian-related causes, noting she saw him doing a lot of work with gay and lesbian groups.

"I want us to talk together," Tsai said of the Asian and LGBT communities. "We have a lot of work to do in this country."

Other awards
AABA honored the two Asian San Francisco judges who are facing challengers in the June election. Judges Cynthia Ming-mei Lee and Andrew Cheng received Outstanding Jurist awards. Lee was recognized for her work in starting programs to help veterans in the criminal justice system and to help with truancy in elementary public schools.

Cheng received the award for his work in the San Francisco City Attorney's office that resulted in a $500 million settlement with tobacco companies that was used to revitalize Laguna Honda Hospital and for his work on the bench.

Other honorees included Caroline Tsai (no relation to David), executive vice president and general counsel and corporate secretary for Western Union, who received the General Counsel Milestone Award; attorneys Wilson Chu, Jean Lee, John Kuo, Don Liu, and Lee Hanson, who received the Vanguard Award; and Lisa Mak, an associate at Minami Tamaki LLP, received the Joe Morozumi Award for Exceptional Legal Advocacy.

Joe Antonio Vargas, a gay undocumented journalist who came out in a New York Times magazine article in 2011, received AABA's Social Justice Award. Vargas was ill, however, and unable to attend the event.

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