Mayoral candidate Ed Lee on City College issues

By Valerie Demicheva
The Guardsman

On January 11, 2011 Ed Lee was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to serve out the remainder of former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term, after he left office to become Lieutenant Governor of California. Lee originally pledged not to run for office at the time of his appointment, but decided later to join the race. 

Lee has worked for the City of San Francisco for 22 years. He has served as an Investigator for the City’s first Whistle Blower’s Ordinance, Human Rights Commission Director, City Purchaser, Director of the Department of Public Works, and City Administrator.

The Guardsman’s Valerie Demicheva recently sat down with  Mr. Lee and questioned him on City College issues: 

Valerie: How can City College help implement your Mid-Career Job Training Program?

Lee: We have a lot of people that are underemployed, and they’re kind of in their mid-careers. We talked to the tech companies and they would like to set up apprenticeship programs with City College to train the skill sets that are needed in the new economy. We want technology and the life sciences to create internship and apprenticeship programs for people to work their way into these very good paying jobs. The first three big ones that want to come in and help us do this are Twitter, Zynga and Salesforce.

Valerie: Why did you approve only $250,000 of the $2.1 million dollars requested by City College in this year’s budget?

Lee: The Board of Supervisors and the mayor have to agree on the amount. What I think the amount may have reflected is we probably didn’t have enough money to spread out. I think if we work out this mid-career program there is a possibility that we can augment the 250k with private dollars because technology companies would like to fund this.  So we can create more money for City College with that idea because our budget is decreasing as well. State contributions will be the same.

Valerie: What is the purpose of the City College Select Committee, and who do you envision on the Committee?

Lee: I think that the Select Committee is a good idea and I think that we should hire people who want to grow ideas like linking community college students to new jobs. I think just graduating from City College without direction as to where new jobs will be, will leave people hanging. So similar to high schools students, we need to direct CCSF students to all the new jobs in the Bay Area.  We still have a very strong tourism industry. But I think the Biology, Life Sciences, green tech companies, along with the growing health care industry are the areas we can really be more ready for.

Valerie: What will you do to keep young families in San Francisco?

Lee: I’m a big proponent of building more affordable housing.  We still need more.  We also need that affordable housing to be a little larger than studios.  I think what we’re trying to do in the development and designs of Hunters’ Point, Park Merced, and Treasure Island, is make larger units.  Family oriented units where people can have a sustainable living space.  And we’re going to be pushing for more affordable family housing units just like we did on Broadway. We need to do more of that.

Valerie: How do you plan to help small businesses?

Lee: I’ve unveiled a 17-point program for job creation and economic growth.  Several of the ideas have really been resonating with small businesses. One point is creating a jobs squad. Rather than working in the office and waiting for people to come in and complain, people from the mayor’s office of economic development, work with landlords and residents to see where the vacancies are and try to match up businesses to go into those vacancies and be proactive. Another point, is creating a 5 million dollar small business revolving loan fund.  Right now, many of the people who want to start business and grow larger, if they’re already there, they can’t get the financing.  Banks aren’t lending money to small businesses because they feel it’s too risky.  The $5 million revolving loan fund is to basically have the City support them financially.

Valerie: Why did you decide to run? Was there a seminal moment where you thought I’m really good at this and I need to run?

Lee: Yeah, you may have known I was appointed mayor in January by the Board of Supervisors, in a unanimous and kind of historic vote, the first Asian mayor and I’m pretty proud of that.  But I didn’t have much time to think. I was faced with five very daunting responsibilities that I needed to go right to work on.  One was the $380 million budget deficit which we ended up balancing; getting a pension reform measure that would end up in agreement between labor and managers and business; I had to find a new police chief right away because Gascon had just announced he was going to be D.A.  Then I had to get the America’s Cup started, and then in between there, as soon as I started, then Twitter said they’re going to have to leave because they can’t afford to pay at this time in their company’s phase, the payroll tax, so I worked on all cylinders with the supervisors to get all those things done.  When we did, and it took me about six months working with the board to get all those things completed, several of the supervisors who had voted me in, it just happened to be all the women supervisors, had asked that I reconsider not running because I had decided not to run for mayor during that time because all I wanted to do was concentrate on the work.  And by concentrating on the work too, I got a lot of things done, got all those things done. And the actual supervisors had suggested that maybe I reconsider because things had been done so well.  For example, when we balanced the budget, it was to the standing ovation in the Board of Supervisors chamber.  It had not happened in 22 years that I’d known, and I think people really felt that the office was being appropriately led and so we were able to accomplish those things and when the supervisors asked me to reconsider, I opened my mind for the first time.  That was July, and then Senator Feinstein and I went to the white house to celebrate the giants winning of the World Series trophy.  She just reinforced the fact that people want somebody to just get things done.

Valerie: Were you surprised by all of the support?  And whose support surprised you the most?

Lee: Yeah, you know, I didn’t really pay attention to support in a political way, but I knew that the way we had balanced the budget, the way we had derived a very consensus building pension reform for the November Ballot, we had a lot of support for those issues.  Because we were bringing everybody united together.  That’s the way I enjoy working.  That’s what I’ve done in 22 years; I try to bring more people together on tough issues that we are working on. That’s what I did for Gavin, that’s what I did with Willie Brown, that’s what I did for Frank Jordan, and for Art Agnos.  Those are four mayors that I served in five different capacities. And I think that’s why they kept promoting me all that time.  ‘Hey, you got this done for me and that’s really important to me as the mayor, and I want you to do more.” Gavin reappointed me to another five years as City Administrator because he wanted the city to run well, and even he asked me to be mayor in January as well too, and he felt that would be a safe way to keep the city moving forward.  So, it was really the work and getting the work done, and bringing a lot of people together to unite around the challenges and get more agreement and more consensuses.  That was kind of the momentum for me to consider running for this office and asking the public then to vote.  Because in January, it was really just the Board of Supervisors and I think the discussion I had with my wife, Anita, was, you know after all this work, why don’t we give the public the chance to vote on whether they believe this is the right way for the City to be run.  And let them have that chance.  Not just leave it to the supervisors and the candidates.  So that kind of got me over the hesitation with politics. I’ve never run for office before.  This is the first public office I’ve ever run for; in fact the last time I ran for office was high school.

Valerie: Do you enjoy the process of campaigning?

Lee: Actually, honestly I do not enjoy political campaigning. I don’t enjoy having to raise money, and the ongoing debates.  I think that those have not been enjoyable. They have to be done because the debates allow certain groups to get a feel for what you’re thinking, even though it may be one minute.  I enjoy going out into the neighborhoods, you may have read that I skipped a couple of debates and I went out to Lower Haight, and visited people in the bars and had great discussions with people over beer and enjoyed talking to them about college and what they are doing; what the city means to them, what they enjoy about it the most, what their aspirations are for where they want to go in the future, and if I’m lucky to be mayor, what I can do to help get that done.  I enjoy those kinds of conversations.  I enjoy talking with students because I know they’ve got a lot of fear, but they’d also like to have a mayor that’s trying to create jobs. They feel I’m doing the kind of stuff they would want to have happen, so that when they graduate, hopefully they can find ways to pay off those bills that they’ll have a chance to do that.

Valerie: Why do you think San Francisco hasn’t had an Asian mayor?

Lee: I think it’s a political awakening by the Asian Community but the larger community in general. I think that as you take a look at the cultural push from the last generation of Asians that just wanted the kids to be doctors, lawyers, professionals, and accountants and business people – they avoided pushing kids to be involved in any politics. In fact, they thought politics was something that wasn’t a good career.  I think in the past 10 years in particularly. The Asian Community has matured in that respect and developed an idea that serving and community service is actually a very good thing and that it should be part of one’s development and to be respected as a profession and so that’s only really happened in the last 10 years.  And that’s why you see four Asians on the Board of Supervisors, it really is that awakening. They’re coming out of schools thinking, “I’m gonna do public service.”  That’s a good thing, and that’s as important as a doctor.  Because they know that in public government, and you know I was attracted to it 22 years ago, you have to be responsible for peoples’ quality of life.  And in this city, it’s really important to represent the different communities, and I enjoy going out to those neighborhoods, that’s what I’ve done most in particular when I was the Director of Public Works, and everything that I’ve done since that time I’ve enjoyed, not only Chinatown, but looking at Visitation Valley, Bayview-Hunters point, Outer Mission, in the Excelsior. Even during this time as mayor, one of the most enjoyable things besides having to work on all these big things that we talked about, was doing merchant walks with each of the supervisors.  Each district has their key merchant corridor, local people who live there running bakeries and coffee shops. That’s what I’ve enjoyed doing with each of the supervisors.

Valerie: What do you think of using public campaign dollars for mayoral campaigns?

Lee: I decided to do that for personal reasons.  The major reason is that I had to cut so much when we balanced the budget. I had to cut funds out of departments, had to cut off a lot of community-based nonprofits that were serving youth and seniors because we didn’t have enough money. And so I kind of felt, well, jeez, the other candidates together are going to use $9 million of public monies, and I just felt uneasy, and I said if I’m going to do this, I’m going to raise my own money.  And so I made that personal choice.  I don’t have any problem with public finance, but at this time for me, it’s probably not the best choice.

Valerie: Why do you think you’re attracting high-tech donors?

Lee: One, I think they know that when we made the big decision to save Twitter, we really signaled to the tech companies we want them to start here and then to stay here, and to grow here.  That’s been my philosophy with all of these startup technology companies.  And they felt that the city’s really welcoming their innovative ideas in linking technology with government or technology with the private sector. And I want them, like Zendesk and others, to really be able to grow, and I think they can, and we’re going to try to help them with exempting them from the payroll tax if they’re here in Mid-Market. In a year, we’re going to revamp the whole payroll tax, and not tax them on additional employees that they want to bring in.  That’s the big signal that we’re sending and that’s why they’re all coming in.  I made that very clear myself, and the supervisors and I think that’s been resonating with the technology CEO’s and CFO’s. They see this as a signal that the City is becoming more investment friendly, and so they wanted to register their confidence and that’s why they’re supporting me.

Valerie: Can you explain the reason for the tax cut?

Lee: The old payroll tax is very regressive because it punishes you for growing your business. What we had on the books for many years was kind of backwards, and so now that our economy is moving towards wanting people to get more jobs and wanting more jobs, it’s the wrong thing to do to tax that activity.  It should be inviting, we should support it, and if we’re going to have to create revenue, let’s create it in a different way that doesn’t work against job creation.

Valerie: What do you envision for this neighborhood, Mid-Market?

Lee: Well, I think this neighborhood is coming alive.  I think it’s going to be both a good cultural arts center as well as a mainstay for employment.  And I see kind of the anchors already beginning with Twitter on the 10th Street side, and will probably bring in 2,500 employees in the next two years, and that’s just two floors of an eight floor building.  So I see more technology companies that will move into that same building as well. The Furniture Mart building – anchor that part of the Mid-Market and then here (6th Street), we’ve already seen Zendesk across the street. They moved in, and they’re going from 80 employees to 150 by the end of this year so in between we’re getting bites around filling the vacant buildings.  In the meantime, the storefronts are activated with arts-related entities like Grey Artists Foundation as well as Blackrock slash Burning Man. And we have, right around the corner, Taylor Street – also really activating for the arts.  When the Grey Arts foundation took over the old porno shop right there, right next to the Golden Gate Theater – I helped cause that to happen through the Community Challenge Grant. Working with grants for the arts, as well as the arts commission, they really made a tremendous change right on that mid block.  And then further up, we were working with the site of Original Joe’s as the owners there decided they would relocate to North Beach.  I think by early next year they’ll have two entities that will move into that site.  One is the Piano Fights Theater that will be on the ground floor, and then in the lower floors, it will be the underground ceramics.  Of course, art related venues have been the surprisingly attractive things that have started coming back.  Now, Pearl’s Deluxe Burger, is about to open and that will be in the next thirty days.  We have another company called Huckleberry Bicycles, and they’ll be opening up right there on 7th and Market and that’s in the next 30 days as well. And those are just some of the small entities that will open up.  And of course everybody’s awaiting our police substation to be here.  And along the lines of public safety, the substation will of course activate a larger presence here on a more consistent basis.  At the same time, we are expanding a very good program that we started on 3rd Street in the Bayview, called The Community Ambassador Program.  That’s where we are using funds from the Jobs Now Program, which are funds from the Human Services Agency that is dedicated to job training for welfare recipients, and we’re enticing them to get a job for a whole year and they can do different things that can transition them into being job-ready for permanent jobs.  This is part of a program that started on October 1st, we have now 200 people in training, and about 6 or 7 of them are just starting their training for the Community Ambassador program.  What that is, is local residents, people that will live very close to here, will be trained through our police academy as well as sponsored by the Omega Boys & Girls Club as a fiscal sponsor to train them as to be ambassadors on the streets for additional public safety related issues and that’s what we did to quell the violence that had been targeting elderly Asians along the 3rd street along the municipal platforms that’s working really well. That’s been kind of the star of both Bayview and the Visitation Valley, and it’s been praised by a lot of the groups as having really brought those incidences down.  What they are, are people riding the buses on Muni, making a presence where the major stops are, the major platforms, here it would be 6th and Market, walking around, being very visible. They are additional eyes and ears for the police.  For example, AT&T is donating for free cell phones to have an immediate tie to the closest police station.  They are trained through the police academy to recognize and remember essential things ordinary citizens wouldn’t pay attention to. For example, as they’re approaching groups of people they’ll be trained as to what to look out for.  What clothing people will wear. What color shoes they have on – all the characteristics of identifying folks on the street.  Because they are from the community, the nice thing is they know all the regulars and they’ll know who hangs around what corner, and be totally familiar with the whole area so that when you have a young tech walking down, music’s blasting, not paying attention to anything, we’ve got additional eyes and ears. And that’s exactly what I talked to Jack Dorsey about, and he was saying his engineers and his staff sometimes go home at about 10 PM and they’re not paying attention, and they would like the presence, but he also knows there’s limits to the police department, and it’s expensive to pay a police officer there all the time. So the community ambassadors have shifts, and always works in twos, they would be around during the times we think that it’s a little more isolated, yet there’s a need. That’s how we schedule the whole 3rd Street process, is to shift them in areas where people were going to work early in the morning, or later in the afternoon, or beyond the regular peak times.  During peak times, there’s a lot of people around. It’s really those isolated times at night.  Twelve of them in Bayview, and ten of them came from Bayview and Visitation Valley. We have Samoan, Latino, Asian, and African-Americans all in that twelve. And they speak eight different languages. So, as ambassadors too, they give visitors and everybody else information that they were trained to give.  Nearest police station, nearest medical center, or where all of the different restaurants and theaters are, as people are looking for stuff.

Valerie: How will you keep schools diverse if Proposition H passes?

Lee: You know I think we have to build in parent involvement in our neighborhood schools in order to keep them strong.  But we also have to give people a choice.  I looked at that language on Prop H, and apparently the language in there seems to prevent people from selecting a school that’s a little further away from their neighborhood school if it’s bilingual, or immersion, or if it’s got special arts programs that they want their child to attend. So I think we need the best of both worlds, and I’m not so sure that proposition does it.

Valerie: Where do you hang out and what do you do for fun?

Lee: So one of the things I do is hang out at Philz Coffee. I have been hanging out there, whenever I’ve had time, for the past, probably 10-12 years.  The home site of course is 24th and Folsom, where he started, and I think the atmosphere is just so cool, great warm family type of couches. The artwork is great, it’s very relaxing and people are just relaxed. Everybody brings in their dogs, they listen to music, and it’s a good location. It’s very close to my house, but it’s on the way to any place.  Otherwise, what else do I enjoy.  Jazz. I like jazz. Kind of your Chris Bottie fan. I saw Sting the other night. That was pretty cool.  Got a chance to visit out on Treasure Island at the Oracle OpenWorld that was really cool. Got a chance to say hi, but also thank Oracle for their 50,000 visitors in the convention that they had.  It’s one of the largest conventions that we have.  Also, I haven’t been able to, but I’m kind of a weekend golfer.  So the only time that I have is 6 AM on Sundays, and I guess that’s me, the golf ball and god, just talking to each other.

Valerie: What course do you golf on?

Lee: Nowadays, because I’m running the City it has to be Harding Park or Presidio. Prior to being mayor I belonged to a golf club that played all over the Bay Area, anywhere from Oakland to Crystal Springs to Fairfield, kind of all the bay area courses.  They’re all different and all great courses.  They’re all within half an hour to forty minutes.  My enjoyment.

The Guardsman