Aides for San Francisco Supervisor London Breed were answering the phone differently by early Tuesday morning. “Acting Mayor Breed’s office.”
Mayor Ed Lee, the city’s leader since 2011 and the first Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco, died unexpectedly during the night. The news sent local leaders reeling, as they issued expressions of grief and grappled with the suddenly complicated politics of who will be the next permanent mayor of the city. Lee was 65 years old.
The city charter dictates that, for now, the president of the Board of Supervisors fill the role. London Breed, a native San Franciscan who grew up in public housing like Ed Lee did, addressed the city in that capacity for the first time late Tuesday morning local time in a press conference at City Hall. She did so as the first African-American woman to serve as San Francisco’s mayor.
“Thank you for being here on this mournful day,” she began, flanked by other members of the city’s 11-member lawmaking body, several of whom have considered running for mayor themselves. Also present was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of the city and a leading candidate to replace Jerry Brown as governor next year.
Breed lauded Lee’s “life of service” and the notion that a son of a seamstress could ascend to the city’s highest office. Ed Lee once worked as a civil rights lawyer and served as city administrator before becoming mayor. He was not a silver-tongued politician. On Tuesday many peers described him more as a humble leader with a heart of gold: an advocate for the homeless, for LGBT communities, for immigrants like his parents.
“Ed Lee was a kind and decent human being who cared deeply about our city,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, who served on the board while Lee was mayor, said in a statement. “The Chinese community was so proud to finally have a mayor from the community — something it had waited for for over 150 years.”
Breed spoke about Lee’s efforts to build more housing for low-income residents, many of whom have struggled to stay in the city during an ongoing affordability crisis, as well as his focus on homelessness. “That commitment to others defined the mayor’s three decades of public service,” she said. “He explored every option and embraced any idea that could help move people off the streets.”
Lee was also known for embracing the tech community and luring companies like Twitter to set up shop on a blighted street that runs through the center of the city. Though a controversial tax break helped make that happen, such moves aided in revitalizing the district.
“In the months ahead,” Breed concluded, “let’s carry on in Mayor Lee’s honor.”
A doctor who had treated Lee spoke briefly, saying that his wife and two daughters had requested that details about his health remain private. Though news outlets have reported that Lee died from a heart attack, she said a medical examiner was working to determine the cause of death. He arrived at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital by ambulance around 10 p.m. on Monday night and died after staff worked to save his life for several hours.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera spoke about “next steps,” in practical terms. Breed is currently serving dual roles, continuing to hold her position as president of the Board of Supervisors as well as assuming the position of mayor. The next mayoral election is scheduled for 2019; a special election will now be held in June 2018. The winner will serve the remainder of Lee’s term, which was set to expire in early 2020, and could also have a big leg up in the 2019 race.
Many politicians — including Breed and at least two other members of the board — have been named as possible candidates to run in 2019. Mark Leno, who has represented San Francisco in the state legislature, already announced his candidacy. In advance of the special election, the board can vote to install an interim mayor but is not required to, Herrera said. “What happens will be determined by what actions, if any, the board decides to take,” he said.
It’s unclear whether there will be the required six votes to install an interim mayor. There may be no vote in advance of the election, and Herrera said there will certainly be no vote on Tuesday.
Flags around the city will fly at half-mast for 30 days in honor of Ed Lee, Breed said. Some city employees also planned to hold a moment of silence for the city’s 43rd mayor at noon.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described London Breed. She would be the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco, not the first African-American to hold the office.