San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee
San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee

After 7 days without a mayor, San Mateo appoints first Jew of color to the job

Amourence Lee was appointed mayor of San Mateo by the city council on Dec. 12 after a weeklong battle over the position that left the city without a chief executive for days. She is the first Jew of color and the first Asian American woman to serve as San Mateo mayor.

For over 100 years, by convention, the position has been filled by the most senior member of the city council; Lee was first appointed in 2019 to fill a vacancy on the council, and then elected to a full term in 2020. However, her appointment as mayor was temporarily blocked by two newly elected city council members who disagreed with her on housing policy.

Lee sharply criticized the move by lawmakers Lisa Diaz Nash and Robert Newsom in an interview with J. this week.

“It’s not lost on our community that this unprecedented disruption of government happened in the height of anti-Asian and antisemitism in our country and in the Bay Area,” she said.

Lee’s father is of Chinese-Hawaiian heritage and her mother, Litty Medalia, is an Ashkenazi Jew, Lee told J. two years ago. Lee once wrote in an essay about her identity that she is “exactly 50% Ashkenazi according to my genome. And Jewish law says I’m 100 percent because my mother is Jewish.”

Many local residents attended a heated city council meeting on Dec. 12, some holding signs and protesting peacefully outside in favor of Lee, the Mercury News reported.

There’s this beautiful story of triumph and of a multiracial, multifaith, multigeneration coalition that came together to defend democracy

During the meeting, Lee accused members of the community of backroom dealings, offering her the chance to be mayor in exchange for her vote for their preferred candidate for an open fifth seat on the council, according to the Mercury News. By the end of the meeting, the fifth candidate had been selected and Lee had been appointed mayor by a full five-person council.

“In some ways, turning our backs on the charter and depriving the city of a mayor is an unprecedented breach of 128 years of tradition and peaceful transfers of power,” Lee told J. “On the other side, there’s this beautiful story of triumph and of a multiracial, multifaith, multigeneration coalition that came together to defend democracy and hold the line at the local level. So I hold both of those stories.”

Her priorities now include a review of the city charter in the city of 105,000 to prevent similar disruptions in the future.

Just 2½ years ago, Lee was targeted in a vandalism attack on her home that drew media attention during the height of the pandemic. In June 2020, in the midst of a wave of racist anti-Asian incidents in the U.S., a rock was thrown through her front window. In a video posted on Facebook shortly after the incident, Lee said she was “shaking with fear” and that she was the victim of a hate crime.

“This is my home. I belong here. You will not take away my sense of belonging,” she said in a second Facebook video.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky