Ever since his days as a student at UC Berkeley School of Law, then called Boalt Hall, San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor Edwin Lee dedicated himself to public service.
Lee, 65, died early Tuesday at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center after suffering a heart attack.
“I was just shocked and incredibly saddened to hear of his sudden passing,” Berkeley city mayor Jesse Arreguín said.
Lee, who graduated from Berkeley Law in 1978, was appointed mayor in 2011 following former mayor Gavin Newsom’s departure from office. Months later, Lee won the election to serve a full term and was reelected to office in 2015.
“He was not just a politician — he actually knew how to pull the levers within the city apparatus to make sure that things were done,” said David Louie, Berkeley Law alumnus and Lee’s former roommate.
Lee helped to bring tech companies to San Francisco in the midst of the 2008 recession and he worked to increase affordable housing. In response to President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, Lee also worked toward making San Francisco a sanctuary city during the last year. According to Arreguín, Lee focused on creating both a “city of innovation” and a community of equal opportunity.
During Lee’s time at Berkeley Law, he was well-recognized as a student committed to social justice. Edward Chen, federal district judge for the Northern District of California and also Lee’s former roommate at Berkeley Law, recalled that in law school, Lee spent as much time dedicated to community service as he did on his own schoolwork. According to Chen, Lee was a rarity among holders of political office.
“The work that he did came from his heart and the desire that he had to help people and make things better,” Chen said. “It was not about personal power and trying to advance himself personally — it was about trying to advance the community, and I don’t think he ever lost sight of that.”
As a fellow mayor, Arreguín called Lee an inspiration, adding that Lee’s strong connections to UC Berkeley reflected the campus’s commitment to education with a public service mission.
Lee was the managing attorney for the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco before working for the city government. According to Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, Lee worked on several high-profile cases involving public housing and immigration rights before becoming mayor.
“I think he leaves (a) great legacy of service, of someone who was committed to serving the community in all the jobs he’s had,” Kohli said.
London Breed, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has become acting mayor following Lee’s death.
“We will continue his work and continue to fight for the causes that he believed in,” Arreguín said. “He’s made a lasting impact on not just San Francisco, but the whole region.”