Godfrey: How do you remember him from those early activist days?
Quan: Ed and my other friends, they were just fresh out of law school, they wanted to work in the community, and they were working for [a] civil-rights group that could barely pay them. He was working hard. [He and his wife] were fighting a lot of battles on behalf of the community. He was always there. He and my friend Alan [Yee, who was Lee’s roommate at Berkeley] are both the sort of very serious, modest Asian American types.
I’ll always remember the early years when we were all activists together, when we were fighting a lot of racism and discrimination against immigrants and exploitation of immigrants. As he emerged more as a politician, he was always very kind and very considerate of everybody—unlike most people who become mayors, who have to sort of claw their way up.
Godfrey: Tell me about Lee’s decision to accept the mayorship of San Francisco.
Quan: When I became mayor [of Oakland], I knew people were trying to convince Ed to be mayor. We had a long talk, because I’d just been elected, and I was telling him how there had been so much publicity about the first Chinese American who was leading a major American city—how great it would be if he would do it.
For him it was a sacrifice, because mayors got paid quite a bit less than city administrators, and he was the city administrator of San Francisco. At the time, [after] I’d been elected, I’d asked for advice, I’d tried to steal his people.
Godfrey: Once he became mayor, how closely did you work with him?
Quan: He and I would talk and text each other as we were trying to do things, whether it was green-city policies or coordinating our legal defense against the plastics industry. It ended up being sort of a friendly competition of who’s greener, who is more progressive as a city. We both had a lot of struggles with slowing down gentrification and trying to get affordable housing.
He got appointed right in the middle of January when Barack Obama was going to have [a] state dinner. The president had invited me and other famous Asian Americans to the state dinner. This was the first one with Hu Jintao, the president of China at the time.
[The dinner was] totally booked. Apparently this was the hottest ticket, and people were trying to get in. My husband said, “You know, you and Ed should just go.” So I ended up taking Ed Lee as a date. It ended up being sort of a thing. It was, I think, pretty important for the Asian community because it was like, “Okay, they’re finally getting into political power.”
For Ed and me, we were always very aware of our responsibilities to the Asian community, that we’re a role model for some—and just visible symbols of Asian Americans being part of the American democratic process.
Godfrey: Tell me more about that. Do you have any stories about how that awareness played out in your lives?