In a city where one-third of the population is of Asian descent, Edwin M. Lee '74 made history when he was sworn in as San Francisco's first Asian-American mayor. Elected by the city's Board of Supervisors, Lee will serve out the remaining 11 months of former mayor Gavin Newsom's term. Newsom left office after being elected as Lieutenant Governor of California.
Lee described his four years at Bowdoin as intellectually invigorating and very enjoyable, adding that his life in Maine was a distinct change from his hometown of Seattle, Washington. He fondly remembers snowshoeing with friends right out his front door, searching for moose tracks to follow "into the middle of nowhere" in an attempt to catch them mating.
During his years at the College, Lee was "independent" and unaffiliated with the Greek system. He spent a year living off-campus in a shack next to a house belonging to a lobster and clam farmer. In order to receive a discount on his monthly rent, Lee spent Saturday mornings helping collect and empty the traps.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," he said, adding that he was able to consume "all the lobster I could possibly eat."
Lee stood out at Bowdoin with his long hair, his mastery of both Russian and Chinese and his active role in the campus movement against the Vietnam War. He recalls that while traveling to a Union for Radical Political Economy event in Boston with Professor of Economics David Vail, he was intrigued by the application of his economic courses at the College to the roots of warfare.
Lee, who described himself as "academically-oriented," majored in Government and Legal Studies, explaining that his choice of major "gave my mind the ability to run around." Although focused in political science, Lee said he "enjoyed all the classes," particularly his studies of language and literature in Chinese and Russian.
Beyond academics, Lee was also a varsity tennis player and learned to play squash while at the College.
He spent his last three summers at the College working with Outward Bound's program on campus, which he described as "instilling the focus of college and showing a different life" to Penobscot Indian and French Canadian students in low-income brackets.
Lee described the experience as invaluable, stating that it informed his first government job in Boston the year after graduation when he worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Lee graduated summa cum laude and won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 1974, and after working in Boston he spent a year in Hong Kong comparing the role and influence of the Chinese Youth League to the Boy Scouts of America.
Relying on his mastery of various Chinese dialects, Lee interviewed children in an effort to chart "what socialism had to offer in terms of guiding youth," surveying the degree to which nationalism and dreams of the future were impressed upon younger generations.
Upon returning to the U.S., he attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated in 1978.
Lee spent 12 years working as an attorney in San Francisco's Chinatown, an experience that he described as one of the most formative in shaping his current views on the role of government.
"I educated tenants about using the law, their rights," he said.
Yet Lee also saw the potential for government's role in enacting change, adding that "change can come as effectively from within as from lawsuits filed."
Politicians should "carry out the promises of government, but do it in a way that allows more people to understand and be a part of it," he said. "It's not a foreign object, it's not threatening."
Having served as San Francisco's City Administrator since 2005, Lee said he hopes to return to the post in November once his term as mayor comes to an end. Until then, his priorities will include working to halt the city's problems with pension and health care reform and to maximize local hiring and infrastructure opportunities when San Francisco hosts the next America's Cup, a major sailing competition, in 2013.
Lee has never forgotten his Bowdoin roots. When he attended the state dinner at the White House last week, he thought of his former Bowdoin government professor. Although Lee couldn't remember the name of the professor, he did recall the time he spent helping to research a book regarding the history of the White House, and eagerly remembered hearing stories about the professor's own experiences while working in Washington, D.C.
Lee has not neglected one of the core principles of the College either, maintaining his commitment to the common good.
"No matter what discipline you are, if you keep a good solid view on your profession—how it impacts [the] neighborhood, how it impacts community—then you are always working in a responsible way," said Lee. "Otherwise, you're only trying to make money."