British philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote there are two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes know lots of little things; hedgehogs know one big thing.
Ed Lee is a hedgehog.
The one thing he knows is that the future of San Francisco is dependent on jobs--particularly the tech jobs for which the city is famous, but also manufacturing jobs and summer jobs for the city's not especially gigantic number of young people.
During his appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California on Tuesday evening, Lee kept coming back to the notion of jobs, tying everything from replacing the city's controversial payroll tax with a gross receipts tax to improving Muni's effectiveness back to the employment issue.
Lee talked about a weekly trip he takes with the city's Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath to various tech firms around the city to meet with employees. "When I go in there I do two things. First, I see what their business model is, and then I go talk to their employees," he said. "The fact that technology is here is partly because we have great food and culture, but the main reason most companies are here is because they want access to the top talent. I go ask what the employees want: they want affordable housing, great pubic transit and great culture."
Lee noted that the biggest questions most tech employees center around is his efforts to improve the Muni system. Between one-third and one-half of the tech employees he talked to utilized Muni as part of their daily commute. "If these people are going to spend 15 hours a day at work, they want to spend it at work and not riding Muni," he said.
Another set of jobs Lee said he was interested in bringing into San Francisco are those of the Golden State Warriors. "I want to welcome them into the city, hopefully with a waterfront area," he said, referring to recent rumors that the currently Oakland-based NBA franchise is considering the construction of a San Francisco area on Piers 30-32. "I'm not going to apologize for grabbing someone else's team."
Despite the mayor's consistent banging of the employment drumbeat, he still received some fairly aggressive questions from the audience about his commitment to removing some of the famously onerous red-tape that historically plagues projects in the city. When asked why he insisted on wringing concessions out of California Pacific Medical Center in exchange for letting the company build a gigantic, 555-bed hospital near the intersection of Geary and Van Ness on Cathedral Hill, Lee launched into explanation mode.
"If CPMC just built what they wanted to build, they'd be adding a large amount of traffic to what's already one of the most congested avenues in the city," said the mayor, defending the more than $200 million CMPC shell out towards charitable care for low income patients, affordable housing, community health clinics and public transportation improvements. "If they want to hire six to seven thousand people, where should those people live? Will they live in the city or commute from across the Bay? If they ride the transit system in the numbers they expect, can we expect the same level of Muni service? There was also the destruction of dozens of housing units that we want to make up for."
Lee defended his support of the California's beleaguered high speed rail system as something with significant long-term benefits for San Francisco. "Right now, the future of our economy is dependent on high speed rail," he said. "One-third of the traffic at San Francisco International Airport is between San Francisco and Los Angeles." Lee noted that while SFO is prevented from expanding to become any larger, eliminating a large chunk of commuter flights to LAX would free up space for more international travel, thus providing a global boost to our economy.
Lee concluded his talk by answering a question about why he thought San Francisco only elected its first Asian-American mayor last year, despite the city's historically large Asian population. He noted that many Asian immigrants came from "countries with histories of dictatorships," and were, as a result, hesitant to get involved with politics.
Lee said he was proud to be the city's first Asian-American mayor, but added an important stipulation. "For a Chinese-America to be the mayor of San Francisco," he said, "you have to prove you can be the mayor of Latinos, gay and lesbian groups--all the varieties that make the city rich."
Check out this video of Lee chatting about tax issues in San Francisco at last year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference: