Mayor Edwin Lee Memorial. San Francisco City Hall. 17th December 2017.

A grieving city paid its respects to Ed Lee, San Francisco’s 43rd mayor and first Chinese-American occupant of Room 200 at City Hall, at a packed memorial service Sunday under the rotunda of what Lee referred to as “the people’s palace.”

Lee died suddenly last Tuesday at the age of 65 after suffering a heart attack while shopping for apple juice at his neighborhood Safeway store. Thousands of people paid their respects to the civil servant turned politician while his body lied in state inside City Hall Friday, and his friends and family attended a private funeral service Saturday in Daly City.

The public commemoration of Lee’s life the next day saw elected leaders from around the country, local celebrities, city employees, and San Francisco residents pack into City Hall for a 90-minute tribute to the “unusual political leader,” as Governor Jerry Brown (D) described his friend and fellow lawmaker.

“Ed was a person who had an infectious smile,” recalled Brown, adding that, “anytime I got a call from Ed Lee it was a pleasure to talk to him.”

Noting that Lee had not sought out being named mayor after Gavin Newsom (D) resigned from the position due to his election in 2010 as the state’s lieutenant governor, former mayor Willie Brown said Lee “was different” from all of the city’s past mayors.

“He never wanted the job. I am not sure Ed Lee ever wanted any job,” remarked Brown, pointing to how he and other mayors recruited Lee, who had been a civil rights attorney, for various positions in their administrations and later urged him to run for the job after initially saying he wouldn’t.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the city’s first female mayor who played a part in convincing Lee to run for the position, recalled Lee not only as a “steadfast champion for human and civil rights” but also as someone who was “incredibly effective in government management.”

Newsom joked that Lee had a reputation as being “uncool” but was friends with “the coolest people on earth,” like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Giants great Willie Mays.

Lee was “a tribute to decency,” added Newsom, “a person beloved but in so many ways underappreciated” who “never sought the public spotlight.”

Lee’s daughters, Tania and Brianna, thanked the public for the support they and their mother, Anita, had received and announced they had set up a charitable fund in their father’s name at the San Francisco Foundation to support programs for the homeless and affordable housing, fighting discrimination, and protecting immigrants and the environment. It was Lee’s “absolute love for the city,” they noted, “that kept him going.”

Matthew S. Bajko for the BAR.