Remembering Ed Lee’s Radical, Left-Wing Past

Back in the 1970s, the late mayor Ed Lee was a socialist progressive activist who protested against landlords and relentlessly advocated for the poor.

The sudden and shocking death of Mayor Ed Lee has brought out an unusual amount of ill will toward the deceased. Right-wing Twitter has been horrible, and many of Lee’s foes on the progressive left have also been less-than-kind on social media in the wake of Lee’s passing.

What the progressive left may not realize is that Lee himself was a radical activist protester in the 1970s. As Lee is eulogized as San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor with a complicated legacy in a megabucks tech and development boom, remember also that Lee was once an anti-development socialist agitator who served San Francisco City Hall with one lawsuit after another.

People, look at what a complete hippie Ed Lee was in 1974. That mullet! The photo comes from his college paper the Bowdoin Orient. Lee had grown up in a Seattle public housing project, and experienced routine racism working alongside his Chinese-American father.

As Lee told Fortune magazine in a 2013 interview, “There were a couple of incidents in the restaurant where [my father] had to take food to Caucasian customers and he would get cursed out, being called a ‘chink cook’ and stuff for whatever reason it was. I would be in the car, help him carry some of the food into the house and he’s, ‘Go sit in the car,’ and I’d be hearing some yelling but I would be afraid to ask him what that was about.”

As we learn from David Talbot’s brilliant Season of the Witch, Lee rejected lucrative job offers after college and chose to be a rabble-rousing activist:

“Ed Lee, a Rhodes Scholarship finalist and UC Berkeley Law School graduate, could have joined his classmates who went to work for elite corporate law firms. Most of the Chinese kids he knew in professional schools were practical; they went for the money. But Lee was too angry and rebellious to go down that path.”

Lee went to work as a community organizer with the Asian Law Caucus, and his first major cause was to organize a 1978 rent strike at a dilapidated Chinatown housing complex called Ping Yuen. (Yes, the pro-development Lee once led a rent strike.) Tenants’ anger boiled over when a young woman was raped and killed in an unlit hallway. Again, to Season of the Witch:

“Ping Yuen’s outraged residents unfurled a banner over an upper-floor balcony announcing a rent strike. Housing authority bureaucrats were stunned. Chinese residents were the most dependable renters in the city’s public housing system. They always paid on time.

When they started withholding their monthly payments, the housing authority immediately felt the financial pinch. After six months, housing officials caved, agreeing to make a long list of improvements at Ping Yuen. The successful Chinatown rent strike was the beginning of Ed Lee’s career as a community organizer.”

Lee’s gadfly agitation of City Hall would continue into the 1980s. Chris A. Smith notes in his 2013 San Francisco magazine Ed Lee profile:

“Lee spent a decade at the Law Caucus, and he filed a lot of lawsuits. He sued the San Francisco Police Department over height requirements that excluded most Asian candidates; he sued the city’s fire department for racial hazing; and he sued the family associations, Chinatown’s traditional bosses, over development projects that would have bulldozed the neighborhood’s past. As lefty firebrands go, though, Lee was a very polite one. No matter how contentious the subject, says Dale Minami, a trailblazing civil rights attorney and cofounder of the Asian Law Caucus, ‘he was able to make his points without rancor, without personal attacks.’”

Lee would eventually take a job at the City Hall he had so frequently protested, worked his way up the ranks, was appointed mayor, and forged a pro-development alliance with Ron Conway and a gaggle of wealthy tech CEOs.

But unlike certain other recent mayors, Lee did not live in a fancy high-rise apartment or sport stylish hairdos and suits. He lived with his family in a little flat, he drove a modest sedan, he wore ruffled suits. Whoever has benefited from the current tech and real estate boom, it wasn’t Ed Lee.

You can certainly criticize Mayor Ed Lee for a lack of concern for the poor and homeless. But you can’t criticize the track record of Young Left-Wing 1970s Agitator Ed Lee in that department.

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