When I wrote on December 20 that Mike Hennessey or Ed Harrington would be chosen as interim mayor, Ed Lee insisted he was not a candidate. Lee changed his stance this week, and is now the favorite. While I still believe that Hennessey is the best choice because his thirty years of voter support gives him the political credibility others lack, there appears some confusion about Ed Lee. Ed Lee is not Gavin Newsom. Lee has dedicated his life to public service, spent years as a poverty lawyer, and has proved an outstanding administrator over the past two decades. Most importantly, Ed Lee has never forgotten where he came from. Progressive Supervisors’ anger at David Chiu for joining moderates in backing Lee over Hennessey is understandable, but disparaging Lee is not.

As my colleague Paul Hogarth reported yesterday, Ed Lee’s surprising entry into the interim mayor’s race created a split on the Board that left Chris Daly and other progressives denouncing David Chiu as a traitor for backing Lee over Mike Hennessey. And while I understand progressive anger at Chiu, let’s be clear about the history of Ed Lee.

A History of Public Service

I started working with Ed Lee around 1980, when he was a staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus. We worked on many issues affecting the preservation of single-room occupancy hotels (SRO’s), and tried to improve living conditions for low-income tenants.

When Lee was at the Caucus, it still operated like a collective, and paid very low salaries. Most if not all of Ed’s original colleagues left to either start their own law firms or joined private firms; Lee could have made significantly more money by pursuing either option, but preferred to stay in public service.

Lee expressed repeated concern to me during the 1980’s about his inability to support his family on the Caucus’s low salary. When Art Agnos became mayor, Lee eventually became the Director of the Human Rights Commission.

Progressives universally backed Lee for that post.

Lee’s career then took a surprising turn when the administrative skills he demonstrated at the HRC led Mayor Brown to appoint him to leadership positions in public works. Again, none of these positions paid Lee what he easily could have obtained in private law practice, but he was committed to public service.

Ed Lee’s administrative duties over the past decade strike me as non-ideological. If he made Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom look better by ensuring that DPW operated effectively, that’s hardly a strike against him.

Ed Lee has never forgotten where he started. While he has had a fancy job title and great power on the city’s organization chart, he is the same person today as he was back when he was helping Chinatown tenants in the 1980’s.

Nobody should doubt that Ed Lee would be an excellent interim mayor.

Is Chiu a “Traitor”?

Chris Daly lambasted David Chiu for backing Lee, saying, “I will haunt you. I will politically haunt you for the biggest fumble in history. It’s on, like Donkey Kong.” District 3 progressives, including Chiu’s former campaign manager Jon Gollinger, also came to City Hall to denounce Chiu’s support for Lee over Hennessey.

Daly sees Lee as keeping the entire Newsom Administration intact for another year, while Hennessey has his own trusted advisors who he would bring with him to City Hall.

If, as his detractors believe, Chiu has traded his support for Lee in exchange for being appointed District Attorney – which I see ending Chiu’s political career next November –than the accusations against him are warranted. After all, this would also allow Newsom to fill Chiu’s District 3 seat with a non-progressive.

But I believe Chiu made the same political calculation as Supervisor Eric Mar, who also announced his support for Lee. Both have little reason not to back the city’s first Chinese-American mayor, and in Chiu’s particular case, Lee is a close political ally.

In fact, if loyalty to political allies is the standard, then Chiu had to vote for Lee.

The most likely scenario is Lee winning additional progressive votes after he returns from Hong Kong, adding to his current 7-4 margin. But the bigger picture is that the choice is between two candidates who will do an excellent job.