Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz Dies at Age 84

Katz was the first woman to serve as Speaker of the Oregon House and later served as Portland's mayor for three terms.

Former Mayor Vera Katz

Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz has died at age 84.

Katz had battled adenocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer, since 2004. For 13 years, that disease required her to undergo dialysis three times a week. In early December, according to her former mayoral spokeswoman Elisa Dozono, Katz was diagnosed with acute leukemia and ceased dialysis.

Katz served as Portland mayor from 1993 to 2005. Her three-term tenure stands in stark contrast to the mayors who have followed her—Tom Potter, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales—none of whom ran for a second term. Katz's exceptional longevity in that office speaks to her skill at orchestrating Portland's unusual commission form of government and to her skills as a politician.

Katz was born Vera Pistrak in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1933. Her family, who were Jewish, fled Europe when Adolph Hitler took power, landing in New York. Katz and her husband, the artist Mel Katz, later moved to Portland in 1964.

Katz began her political career in 1972, representing Portland in the Oregon House. She became the first female Speaker of the Oregon House in 1985 and served in that position for three sessions. She won the 1992 mayor's race in an epic battle against now U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

Related: 'I Have No Fear of Dying' : Vera Katz Talks

Katz's dozen years at City Hall shaped Portland as we know it, with the development of the the Moda Center, the Pearl District, the Portland Streetcar, the Eastbank Esplanade, South Waterfront and other Portland landmarks. Even a deal that went sideways initially, the renovation of the aging facility then known as Civic Stadium into what is now Providence Park, paved the way for the explosive popularity of the Portland Timbers and Thorns.

Katz, a devoted TriMet rider who never learned to drive, even mobilized the city to battle floodwaters.

Related: In 1996, Mayor Vera Katz built a wall to hold back the Willamette.

As a leader, Katz excelled at finding consensus among a sometimes fractious coterie of city commissioners, a legacy of her tenure in Salem.

Katz is survived by her son Jesse, a Los Angeles journalist, her grandson Max Katz and her former husband, Mel Katz.

"My mom was the embodiment of the American dream: coming with nothing and making a better life not just for herself but for the countless others she touched," said her son, Jesse, in a statement. "While we miss her terribly, I know that her fearlessness, generosity and persistence will continue to shine light on our world."

Update, 11:15 am:

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who served with Katz from 1999 to 2005 and is the last of her former colleagues still at City Hall, praised Katz's leadership.

"As Mayor, she never took 'no' for an answer," Saltzman said in a statement. "She was incredibly visionary, thoughtful and tenacious on a wide range of civic issues, and I greatly enjoyed and respected her leadership all the years we overlapped on Portland City Council."

Mayor Ted Wheeler called Katz "larger than life."

"She made an indelible impact on Oregon and Portland over four decades, from the early 1970s to after the turn of the new millennium," Wheeler said in a statement. "All of us in public service can aspire to her boldness, her candor, and her humanity. On a personal level, I attended school with her son, Jesse, and cannot separate Mayor Katz from Vera Katz the mother. My heart goes out to her family and friends during this difficult time. It's rare that someone as accomplished in public life makes a similar impact in their personal life. Vera did. Our community will miss her tremendously."

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.