The selling of Ed Lee

How a career bureaucrat became interim mayor and blossomed into a full-blown politician

A recent hagiography of Ed Lee has been distributed liberally on peoples' doorsteps.

Ed Lee has gone through a remarkable makeover in the last year, transformed from the mild-mannered city bureaucrat who reluctantly became interim mayor to a political powerhouse backed by wealthy special interests waging one of the best-funded and least transparent mayoral campaigns in modern San Francisco history.

The affable anti-politician who opened Room 200 up to a variety of groups and individuals that his predecessor had shut out — a trait that won Lee some progressive accolades, particularly during the budget season — has become an elusive mayoral candidate who skipped most of the debates, ducked his Guardian endorsement interview, and speaks mostly through prepared public statements peppered with contradictions that he won't address.

The old Ed Lee is still in there somewhere, with his folksy charm and unshakable belief that there's compromise and consensus possible on even the most divisive issues. But the Ed Lee that is running for mayor is largely a creation of the political operatives who pushed him to break his word and run, from brazen power brokers Willie Brown and Rose Pak to political consultants David Ho and Enrique Pearce to the wealthy backers who seek to maintain their control over the city.

So we thought it might be educational to retrace the steps that brought us to this moment, as they were covered at the time by the Guardian and other local media outlets.

Caretaker mayor

The story begins quite suddenly on Jan. 4, when the Board of Supervisors convened to consider a replacement for Gavin Newsom, who had been elected lieutenant governor but delayed his swearing-in to prevent the board from choosing a progressive interim mayor who might then have an advantage in the fall elections. Newsom and other political centrists insisted on a "caretaker mayor" who pledged to vacate the office after serving the final year of the current term.

It was the final regular meeting of the old board, four days before the four newly elected supervisors would take office. What had been a bare majority of progressive supervisors openly talked about naming former mayor Art Agnos, or Sheriff Michael Hennessey, or maybe Democratic Party Chair Aaron Peskin as a caretaker mayor.

When then-Sup. Bevan Dufty said he would support Hennessey, someone Newsom had already said was acceptable, the progressive supervisors decided to coalesce around Hennessey. That was mostly because the moderates on the board had suddenly united behind a rival candidate who had consistently said didn't want the job: City Administrator Ed Lee.

Board President David Chiu was the first in the progressive bloc to breaks ranks and back Lee, saying that had long been his first choice. Dufty became the swing vote, and he abstained from voting as the marathon meeting passed the 10 p.m. mark, at which point he asked for a recess and walked down to Room 200 to consult with Newsom.

At the time, Dufty said no deals had been cut and that he was just looking for assurances that Lee wouldn't run for a full term (Dufty was already running for mayor) and that he would defend the sanctuary city law. But during his endorsement interview with the Guardian last month, he confessed to another reason: Newsom told him that Hennessey had pledged to get rid of Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa, a pro-downtown political fixer from the Brown era who was despised by progressive groups but liked by Dufty.

Chiu and others stressed Lee's roots as a progressive tenants rights attorney, the importance of having a non-political technocrat close the ideological gap at City Hall and get things done, particularly on the budget. So everyone just hoped for the best.

"Run, Ed, Run"