Top mayoral candidate Ed Lee knows ropes at City Hall 

Within days, he is expected to assume a job where he will manage a $6.6 billion budget, more than 50 departments and 26,000 employees. But despite being the front-runner to become The City’s interim mayor, many people are probably wondering: Who is Ed Lee?

For the past 20 years, Lee, the current city administrator, has been the consummate behind-the-scenes bureaucrat, working his way up through various departments while managing to upset no one in the process — an achievement akin to a miracle in the contentious world of San Francisco politics.

“We just confirmed him unanimously for the position of city administrator,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said. “He got votes from [Supervisor Chris] Daly and me. You don’t see that all the time.”

Despite spending the past several years working under Mayor Gavin Newsom, a moderate in San Francisco politics, Lee still has the support of some progressive supervisors, such as Eric Mar.

“I’ve known Ed for 20 years, and I know he’s grounded in civil liberties and immigrant rights, which are progressive causes,” Mar said.

In a marathon Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, six members indicated their willingness to back Lee’s appointment for mayor over other candidates, such as Sheriff Michael Hennessey and former Mayor Art Agnos. Supervisor Bevan Dufty initially offered his support for Hennessey, but he switched to Lee following a closed-door meeting with Newsom.

Although the necessary six votes appeared lined up for Lee, supervisors opted to delay a final decision until Friday. Several board members said they hoped to speak more with Lee, who is currently on vacation in Hong Kong.

Newsom has postponed his swearing in as lieutenant governor in order to influence the selection of his successor. The outgoing mayor has said he did not want to see a politicized appointment. Lee seems to satisfy that criterion — he has not expressed any interest in running for mayor in the upcoming election and his appointment by the Board of Supervisors is widely seen as a caretaker position until residents cast their votes in November.

Asked Wednesday whether he thought Lee would make a good interim mayor, Newsom said, “I couldn’t imagine someone more qualified and more appropriate for the post than Ed Lee. I think it’s suggestive that the one guy who didn’t solicit the job is the one guy who gets it.”

If appointed Friday, Lee would become the first Chinese-American mayor in San Francisco history.

“Ed has been a longtime member of the community and he has fought hard to break down barriers for Chinese-Americans here,” said Rose Pak, a consultant for the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “He’s politically savvy and will bring civility back to City Hall.”

Lee is not expected back in the U.S. until Sunday. If things proceed as expected Friday, by the time he returns he will be the mayor of San Francisco.

Along with accepting a greater role in city government, he will be taking a pay cut — as city administrator, Lee earns $254,000 a year, almost $7,000 more than the mayor.

Ed Lee’s résumé

1979-89: Managing attorney for Asian Law Caucus

1989-91: Assistant to Mayor Art Agnos

1991-96: Director of Human Rights Commission

1996-2002: Director of purchasing and services for city

2002-05: Director of Department of Public Works

2005 to present: City administrator



City administrator’s duties

  • Responsible for management and enforcement of rules, policies and regulations disseminated by mayor, Board of Supervisors and voters
  • In charge of the General Services Agency, which include Animal Care and Control, Department of Public Works and Capital Planning Program
  • Often called the “CEO” of San Francisco

Source: San Francisco Department of Human Resources

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Will Reisman

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