The surprise candidate, described in news reports as a low-profile civil servant, has had little exposure in the mainstream media until very recently. But in the Chinese community, he is already a well-known figure.
The child of an immigrant family in Seattle, Lee lost his father at the age of 12 and has deep sympathy for the struggles of newly arrived immigrants, according to reports in the local Chinese press. Lee successfully fought for city contracts for minority businesses when he served as executive director of the Human Rights Commission in San Francisco.
Editors from Chinese publications who knew Lee when he was a community attorney and activist more than 20 years ago believe he has the experience and leadership skills to become a great mayor.
“He knows how the city operates and he has done a lot of work,” said Joseph Leung, chief editor of Sing Tao Daily.
Lee has appeared on the front page of local Chinese newspapers this week, reflecting the community’s hope and excitement about his potentially taking office. On Wednesday, the Sing Tao Daily ran front-page stories with the headlines: “Ed Lee Enters the Final List for SF Mayoral Candidates” and “Chinese Community Hopes Ed Lee Becomes SF Interim Mayor.”
The World Journal, another major Chinese newspaper in the Bay Area, featured a similar story with the headline, “Hopes Are High for Ed Lee to Become SF Interim Mayor” on the front page of its Bay Area section.
Still, Chinese news editors say that given the short term he would serve — lasting only until an election is held in November — it is unlikely that Lee would enact major changes.
“Mayor Newsom spent seven years on the city’s homeless problem without delivering significant outcomes. I doubt if a less-than-one-year-term mayor would bring any remarkable changes,” said Kai Ping Liu, a senior reporter and editor at World Journal who writes on city politics.
Chinese community activists also have expressed strong support for Lee.
“Having a first Chinese-American or a first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco is long overdue,” said Vincent Pan, executive director of the nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action. Pan has worked closely with Lee in the past on language access issues, and thinks highly of him. Pan said he viewed the opportunity as a milestone for Chinese-Americans, further establishing their political influence in the Bay Area.
Oakland and several smaller cities south of San Francisco have already elected their first Chinese-American mayors, he noted, so why not San Francisco?
But other Chinese-Americans said it might be too soon to celebrate. Even if Lee is approved, some say the significance of San Francisco’s first Chinese-American mayor will be merely symbolic.
“This is not the way I envisioned the first Chinese-American mayor,” said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, who sees Lee’s victory as “less real” since he was not elected by the voters and will serve for less than a year. “The real full prize has not been achieved. We are still waiting for a Chinese-American candidate to be elected as a full-term mayor."
But for many others, such as Chinese-American writer Helen Zia, it is still an important step. “It is just a different route,” said Zia.
Vincent Pan agreed. Whether or not the first Chinese-American mayor is delivered by a citywide election, he said, to see someone who is part of the community, cares for the community and would represent and fight for the community enter the mayoral office is significant.
Pan also noted that Chinese-Americans in the city are mature enough to understand that “no one person can change everything.” Pan expected the celebration would quickly turn to rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.
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