Mayor Ed Lee documentary offers a rare glimpse of late leader's path to City Hall and his legacy.
San Francisco's first Chinese-American mayor, Ed Lee, got his start in politics as a young lawyer representing seniors and other low-income tenants. He took his first city government job in 1989, as an investigator under Mayor Art Agnos.
On Dec. 12, 2017, San Francisco woke up to the news that Mayor Ed Lee had suddenly passed away. It was during a seemingly mundane trip to a local grocery store that a heart attack would change the course of the city’s leadership and begin reflections on the legacy this mayor left behind. Among the top of the list: Lee broke a significant barrier as the first Asian American mayor of a major U.S. city. The path that led him there, the challenges he faced and the impact he made in doing so, however, was an untold story.
Through a series of interviews and engaging narration, Mayor Ed Lee offers viewers different vantage points of Lee’s life and persona. Father, brother, friend, colleague, negotiator, leader—Lee was all of it. But there was much more beneath the smiling mayor, as this documentary succeeds in showing. Even those who already admired Lee will walk away with a new appreciation for what he managed to accomplish in his lifetime. But it was a film that nearly wasn’t made.
“I was intimidated by the subject matter,” says Rick Quan, a longtime Bay Area broadcast journalist and producer of the film. “After all, he was the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco. A very high-profile person!” Bay Area residents know Quan from his lengthy career as sports anchor and reporter for KPIX, and with ABC7. But, since 2008, Quan has also been working behind the camera as founder of Rick Quan Productions.
Lee moved up in the ranks over the years and was serving as director of the Department of Public Works when, in 2005, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom named him city administrator, a role Lee held until Newsom's successful run for lietenant governor. The Board of Supervisors subsequently chose Lee as Newsom's replacement. Lee went on to win the voters' approval—twice—to keep his job, in the mayoral elections of 2011 and 2015.
When hearing news of the mayor’s passing, Quan was in shock. In October 2017, he was with Lee as part of a group that traveled to China to attend the Golden State Warriors first exhibition games of the season. The two had become acquainted with one another through various functions throughout the years, but this trip allowed Quan a more intimate, candid look at the mayor, in a way that galas and fundraisers didn’t.
“Two months later, I woke to the news he had passed away,” says Quan. “I was stunned and saddened by the news. It felt very surreal.”
Quan had already done several documentaries on Asian American pioneers, but admits he wasn’t sure he was ready to take on Lee’s legacy, when a friend made the suggestion.
“What convinced me to do it was a phone call from then Chinese Historical Society of America Executive Director Jane Chin,” he says. “We met for lunch and she said CHSA wanted to back a documentary on Mayor Lee and wanted me to produce it. I really felt this was a sign that I was meant to do this film.”
The project took 10 months for Quan to complete, the bulk of which was consumed by wrangling politicians and public figures for interviews. In fact, when Quan finally secured an interview with Hillary Clinton, it was after the film had already premiered at Herbst Theater in Berkeley in February 2019.
Known for his political civility, Lee also let his goofball humor show with his signature bad puns, his daugther Brianna Lee told KQED's Jon Brooks, after her father's death.
“We wound up flying to New York City in March to interview her, and then I edited her into the documentary,” he says. “Some of the most memorable moments were interviewing Hillary Clinton, who was very gracious and friendly. She did not ask for any prepared questions, but spoke from her heart and gave us some very candid and touching answers.”
Since its premiere, the documentary has been shown three times during San Francisco/Oakland’s CAAMFest film festival in May. It was also shown widely this summer and fall in Houston, New York City, San Jose, Philadelphia and Seattle. A cable distribution company has also contacted Quan about having the documentary shown in several major television markets next May during Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
Anita Lee declined to be interviewed for the documentary, saying it would be too difficult to talk about her late husband. Still, Quan says he enjoyed hearing observations on the mayor through the eyes of his two daughters, Tania and Brianna.
“I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from the Lee family,” he says. “In fact, Ed’s siblings will host a screening on Nov. 23 in his hometown of Seattle. It was at Ed’s alma mater, Franklin High School.”
The documentary seeks to offer a depth and roundness to Lee’s life beyond the countless articles and TV interviews. As with anyone’s life beyond death, there is the daunting question of what that person’s purpose was. And, indeed, Lee had much purpose.
“I would like a person to walk away feeling they learned something and leave with a new sense of appreciation of Mayor Lee,” says Quan. “He truly did not seek the spotlight, but sought to serve. To paraphrase what Hillary Clinton says in the documentary: You may not have always agreed with him, but no one could doubt his decency, his humanity and his love for San Francisco.”
For more information about the Mayor Ed Lee documentary, or to find out about hosting a screening, contact the Chinese Historical Society of America; by email, [email protected]; or phone, 415.391.1188.
Photography by: Courtesy of Rick Quan Productions