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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Dies

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Mayor Ed Lee
Mayor Ed Lee  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee died suddenly Tuesday, December 12 at the age of 65. While the news shocked city officials, residents, and political leaders around the region, many LGBTs and allies praised his efforts to help the community, especially people living with HIV and AIDS.

Mr. Lee died at 1:11 a.m. after falling ill at about 10 p.m. Monday while shopping at the Safeway on Monterey Boulevard. He was rushed to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. Susan P. Ehrlich, the hospital's CEO, said Tuesday at a City Hall news conference. Several news outlets are reporting that Mr. Lee had a heart attack.

Ehrlich said that Mr. Lee's family "has asked that we share no further medical information at this time," but the medical examiner's office will perform an investigation.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who was sworn in as acting mayor immediately after Mr. Lee's death, recalled at the news conference how, like her, Mr. Lee had grown up in public housing.

On his way to becoming the city's first Asian-American mayor, he worked as an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, where he helped protect people from evictions. Among other posts, he then served as the city administrator before the Board of Supervisors appointed him mayor in 2011 after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom left to become the state's lieutenant governor.

Breed said that Mr. Lee, who was "surrounded by his family and by his friends" when he died, "lived a life of service cut far too short," and he was "an advocate for the powerless, a voice for the overlooked."

Most recently, Mr. Lee had called on the Board of Supervisors to restore almost $700,000 in HIV/AIDS funding in the city's 2017-18 budget after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut its assistance to the city.

Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to restore the funding.

"We have little control over what happens to state and federal funding, but we are taking proactive measures to ensure critical services in San Francisco are protected," Mr. Lee said in a statement last week. Over the years, it has become common for the CDC to cut funding to San Francisco and for the city to make that up. Since the 2012-13 fiscal year, San Francisco officials have backfilled $14.9 million in cuts to CDC and Ryan White HIV/AIDS funding to the city's Department of Public Health.

In his recent statement, Mr. Lee said, "Our goal is Getting to Zero and to do that we need sustained investment and continued commitment."

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which receives millions of dollars in city funding, issued a statement that said during Mr. Lee's tenure as mayor, "San Francisco made incredible progress toward ending the HIV epidemic."

Under his leadership, the city established the Getting to Zero campaign to eliminate new HIV infections, AIDS-related deaths, and stigma by 2020, the agency noted. Since Mr. Lee took office, San Francisco has had a 47 percent drop in new HIV diagnoses and a 29 percent decrease in AIDS-related deaths.

"As we mourn Mayor Lee, we recognize his decades of service, his steadfast commitment to the people of San Francisco, and his support of HIV prevention and care initiatives," stated San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Joe Hollendoner. "Mayor Lee was committed to end the HIV epidemic and we will miss him and his leadership."

The agency also pointed to Mr. Lee's support for its Strut health center, which opened in 2016 in the Castro neighborhood to offer free HIV testing and other services for gay and bisexual men and transgender people.

Longtime San Francisco resident, AIDS activist, and HIV survivor Cleve Jones, who founded the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and co-founded SFAF, said in a Facebook post Tuesday, "I disagreed with Mayor Lee on many important issues but his commitment to HIV/AIDS funding was unwavering. My sincere condolences to his family and friends."

Gay San Francisco City College trustee Tom Temprano was among those who gathered at City Hall Tuesday to remember Mr. Lee. Referring to Jones' post, Temprano said, "I respect few people on HIV/AIDS issues more than Cleve Jones," and there's "a strong legacy the mayor leaves for our community."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who in her 30 years in Congress has consistently pushed for HIV/AIDS funding, said in a statement that Mr. Lee's death was "heartbreaking."

"As a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and hard-working son of an immigrant family of modest means, Ed Lee understood the strength of a community is measured by its success in meeting the needs of all of its people," stated Pelosi. "He knew the rhythms and the workings of San Francisco at the most granular level, and dedicated decades to improving the lives of all San Franciscans."

Dan Bernal, a gay man who's living with HIV and serves as chief of staff for Pelosi's San Francisco office, was appointed to the city's Health Commission by Mr. Lee earlier this year.

"Year after year, Mayor Lee fought to ensure that San Francisco has the resources it needs to meet the goal of making San Francisco the first city to end new HIV infections," Bernal told the Bay Area Reporter.

Like others, Bernal also recalled Mr. Lee's sense of humor. He said that after he had shoulder surgery around two years ago, Mr. Lee "noticed I was struggling," and a couple of days later, he got a package containing a clip-on tie and a note that said, "I hope you heal well. ... This gift might make it a little easier."

The gesture helps show "what a thoughtful and endearing person he was," said Bernal.

'A key ally'
Ed Lee and Barbara Garcia, a lesbian whom he named city health director, talked at the opening of the Bridge HIV research office in September 2012. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Rick Zbur, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality California, said in a statement that both San Francisco and the state "have lost a key ally in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights and social justice."

Zbur said that the HIV/AIDS funding Mr. Lee routinely worked for "saved thousands of lives."

He also noted that Mr. Lee helped found the national "Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination" coalition, and he was the first mayor to attend San Francisco's annual Trans March, though he and other politicians were heckled while on stage in 2016. The mayor left the event.

Mr. Lee also created the country's first position focused on trans issues with the post of senior adviser for transgender initiatives, Zbur pointed out, and he prohibited public funding for city workers traveling to North Carolina when that state decided to allow LGBT discrimination.

Although Mr. Lee's friendliness toward the high tech industry rankled many, Breed said that "more than 140,000 jobs were created" in the city while he was in office, and the city gained "one of the highest minimum wages in the country," among other achievements.

Mr. Lee also supported affordable housing efforts.

Gay Planning Department Director John Rahaim told the B.A.R., "I will miss him terribly. He was a big supporter for good planning and housing for all, and making it a good city for everyone."

City leadership
Acting Mayor London Breed addressed reporters at a City Hall news conference Tuesday, following the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee. Photo: Rick GerharterMayor

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said at Tuesday's news conference that as acting mayor, Breed "has all the powers and responsibilities" that come with the city's top office, and she'll also retain her Board of Supervisors presidency and remain District 5 supervisor.

An election will be held June 5, 2018, and "the next mayor will be chosen to fill the unexpired term," which ends January 8, 2020, Herrera said.

Herrera said the supervisors could choose to vote for an interim mayor, but the charter does not require that.

A Facebook post by the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, which in 2014 was the first major LGBT group in the city to announce its support of Mr. Lee's re-election campaign, said he was a longtime ally and supporter of the LGBT community. "Our love goes out to his family, staff, and everyone here in this beautiful City by the Bay," the group stated.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who worked with Mr. Lee on various regional issues, said he was "an incredibly gracious man."

"My dear friend and colleague Mayor Ed Lee has passed away, leaving us too early," Liccardo said in a statement. "Ed was a good and incredibly gracious man, at a time when goodness, graciousness, and civility are not sufficiently appreciated in public life."

Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement Tuesday that he and his wife Anne Gust Brown "extend our deepest condolences to Mayor Lee's family, his many friends and the entire City of San Francisco. Ed was a true champion for working people and epitomized the California spirit. He'll truly be missed."

Mr. Lee is survived by his wife, Anita, and two daughters, Brianna and Tania.

Flags will be flown at half-staff in the city for 30 days.

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