SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU staff) - San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee - the city's first Asian-American mayor who people are remembering as the consummate public servant - died Tuesday morning suddenly at the hospital, according to Supervisor London Breed, who will replace him.
Lee, the city's first Asian-American mayor, was 65.
Breed will be the city's first African-American female mayor.
Breed said early Tuesday that Lee died just after 1 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. He was the city's 43rd mayor. Former Mayor Willie Brown was at the hospital with Breed and some others. He said that Lee had suffered a heart attack at Safeway on Monterey Boulevard. Supervisor Malia Cohen also said she got a "flurry of texts" about 11:30 p.m. about the heart attack.
"This is a great loss for the city," Brown said, calling Lee a good friend. "He was really unique. He was not a politician at all. He was a public servant," Brown said, who reached the "pinnacle" by being concerned with the quality of life for his residents, and "not with titles."
Tinei Lafaele, an employee at Safeway, told KTVU that he saw Lee and his wife shopping about 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m., not an unusual hour for the mayor, and was smiling right before his attack. "He was happy," Lafaele said. "But it was sad to hear."
A statement from the mayor's office said: "It is with profound sadness and terrible grief that we confirm that Mayor Edwin M. Lee passed away on Tuesday ... ."
The statement also said family, friends and colleagues were at Lee's side. He leaves behind his wife, Anita Lee, and two daughters, Brianna and Tania.
Publicly, Lee was not known to be ill.
"This is quite a shock," said Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco supervisor and California legislator. "In my mind, the strongest legacy was that he was our first Asian mayor. That meant a lot to our own Asian community."
Lee was appointed as mayor in 2011, replacing Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was elected the state's lieutenant governor. He went on to win the 2011 election and was re-elected in 2015. Brown said that Lee had worked for his administration when he was mayor for eight years as the public works director, a human rights advocate and the chief purchasing officer.
Lee was known for his work against homelessness and being a "policy wonk," who preferred to dive into the details of policy, rather than speaking publicly. Cohen, who was emotional during her interview Tuesday morning with KTVU, said one of her last pieces of work with Lee was trying to get 1,000 homeless people off the streets. Later on Tuesday, Cohen said the mayor was going to announce a big initiative against fossil fuels that he had been working on.
Lee also championed gay rights and immigrants' rights. He was a staunch supporter of San Francisco's sanctuary city policy toward immigrants, a stance he reiterated last month when a Mexican man who had been repeatedly deported was acquitted of murder in the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle.
Lee did care about affordable housing but he also invited tech to town. He earned a bit of criticism from people who thought he was too close to Silicon Valley when he brokered a deal in 2011 to benefit Twitter to San Francisco. Some also say he should have done more to try to make housing affordable for the working class.
He immigrated from a small village in China to the United States and grew up in public housing in Seattle before moving to the Bay Area. That's where he earned his law degree from UC Berkeley, and first worked for the Asian Law Caucus from 1976 to 1989, starting as law clerk and working his way up to managing attorney.
Lee's Twitter handle was "husband, father, former civil rights attorney & housing activist, 43rd Mayor of #SF, mustache icon & #SFGiants& #Warriors fan."
One public highlight for the mayor was when San Francisco turned into Gotham City to give a young boy with leukemia his wish of be coming Batkid for a day in 2013. But one of the things he loved most about being mayor, he told KTVU after he was sworn in, was simply walking through crowds and seeing "all the ethnic faces."
He said he wanted to be known as the proud son of immigrant parents who could be a mayor in a city where he could "listen, observe and unify."
KTVU's Lisa Fernandez and Amber Lee contributed to this report.