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Lee was a steadfast ally

by BAR Editorial Board

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died unexpectedly Tuesday of an apparent heart attack, was a steadfast ally to the LGBTQ community. His leadership fighting discrimination came during the national debate on same-sex marriage and he stood firmly with minority communities after the election of President Donald Trump. He always espoused San Francisco values.

Lee, who started his career fighting the city when he was a student and interned at the Asian Law Caucus, later became the quintessential city bureaucrat, leading the city's Human Rights Commission, Public Works department, and then serving as city administrator. The Board of Supervisors selected Lee as mayor after Gavin Newsom became lieutenant governor, and discovering that he liked the job, Lee broke a promise that he would not seek a full term. He won election in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015.

Lee diversified city government with numerous appointments, several from the LGBT community. He named lesbians Barbara Garcia, Elaine Forbes, and Shireen McSpadden to head the Department of Public Health, Port of San Francisco, and Department of Aging and Adult Services, respectively. Last year he named the country's first senior adviser on transgender issues, Theresa Sparks; and when she recently announced her retirement, Lee named another trans woman, Clair Farley, to replace her, although it's not known whether acting Mayor London Breed will keep the position. He named an HIV-positive gay man, Jeff Sheehy, as District 8 supervisor after Scott Wiener left to become a state senator.

"He was a good guy," Sheehy told us Tuesday. "He was good for us."

In terms of civic projects, Lee and Wiener obtained the funding for the much-needed sidewalk widening project in the Castro a few years ago, and Lee backed the plan that used some of the city's housing fund to help construct the first phase of the Openhouse senior housing project. While not specifically LGBTQ due to anti-discrimination laws, 68 percent of the residents who moved in about a year ago identify as LGBT, according to the agency.

Lee embraced the city's Getting to Zero initiative to end HIV transmission in the city, and backfilled the city's HIV/AIDS budget when federal funds were reduced.

The mayor was a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, working to advance it even before the U.S. Supreme Court restored it in California in 2013. The year before, Lee joined with other Bay Area mayors in Freedom to Marry's campaign to increase popular support for same-sex unions.

When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, Lee was on the steps of City Hall celebrating with LGBTQ community leaders and city officials.

Earlier this year, before Trump's inauguration, Lee became a founding member of the Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination coalition. He was initially joined by more than 175 fellow mayors, all of whom saw the need to promote protections for LGBT people ahead of Trump taking office. Along with that, Lee and the Board of Supervisors instituted a travel ban to states with anti-LGBTQ laws, including a stipulation that bans departments and agencies from entering into new contracts with businesses headquartered in the banned states.

But it was when San Francisco became a national punching bag by right-wingers opposed to sanctuary cities that Lee showed his leadership, rallied city officials and residents, and would not back down from critics deriding "San Francisco values." In August, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists applied for a federal permit to promote their hate, Lee, Breed, and other supporters held a rally on the steps of City Hall to send the message: San Francisco doesn't want you here. "We're all here the day before hate shows up on our shores," the mayor said. "We're the city of love ... I want to say that this city leads with love and compassion. We are and will always be a city of sanctuary. We will resist the wall. We support our Muslim brothers and sisters."

We didn't always agree with the mayor. We found his initial opposition to safe injection sites for drug users puzzling, because it seemed just the sort of out-of-the-box idea that San Francisco could try. At a forum in Seattle in January, the mayor indicated he was open to the idea. Since then, a city task force has recommended multiple sites, but a state bill that would have made them legal failed this year, delaying the program.

Lee had more success with Navigation Centers, where homeless people could stay with their partners, pets, and possessions. But Lee, like other mayors before him, was not able to effectively solve the city's homeless crisis, despite spending tens of millions of dollars. He was more successful with affordable housing, as Wiener noted in a statement. "Ed served as mayor during a period of unprecedented growth in our city and an unprecedented housing shortage," he said. "Ed never got the credit he deserved as arguably the most pro-housing mayor in the history of San Francisco, with a huge amount of affordable housing created or approved under his administration."

Lee wasn't a typical politician and never held elective office before becoming mayor. He loved making corny jokes - often at his expense - but he had an abiding love for the city he led, and for its people. His loss leaves a void, and the jostling to replace him just got scrambled. In the meantime, the LGBTQ community can take comfort from the fact that San Francisco's first Asian-American mayor was a fighter for the rights of everyone.


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