Portlanders Mourn Vera Katz, the Rose City’s Last Successful Mayor

"She was sweet, she was kind; she was wonderful. But 'polite' doesn't come to mind. She was fun, entertaining, loved a good joke. But if she was pissed off, look out."

On Dec. 11, Portland lost its last great mayor: Vera Katz died at 84. Katz, who ran Portland with vision and willpower, was remembered today by a spectrum of state and city luminaries.

Jesse Katz, her son, in a statement:

“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. While we miss her terribly, I know that her fearlessness, generosity and persistence will continue to shine light on our world.”

Elisa Dozono, former spokeswoman for Katz and now a partner at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP, tells WW:

“I think about the times I would be out with her. She would talk to anybody. She talked to the homeless all the time. We’d be out on the streets, and she would talk to them. She would look them in the eye and ask them questions and show that she cared—that extraordinary ability she had despite being such an introvert—just her ability to connect with people, to take their problems as her own and decide to do something about it.

“Most people don’t know what an introvert she was. She just really spent a lot of time on her own processing things on her own. She didn’t like to do the schmoozing and everything. That just wasn’t her.”

 Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg tells WW:
“She was what I would call a 24/7 mayor. She took very few vacations. …She would take her entire in-basket [home] (not just hers, but the office’s inbox). She basically read every letter or reports that was sent to the mayor’s office. That meant that if she ever ran into anybody like on the bus….or at City Council meeting, she’d say, ‘oh yeah, I read your letter.’..At night she kept the police scanner on at night. She was police commissioner the entire four years. …If there was a police shooting, Vera would call [her staff] and say give me a report in two hours or I’ll meet you out at a certain address. …During all that time, being mayor was pretty much her total life.”
 Former City Commissioner Randy Leonard tells WW:
“I was on the council under three mayors —Vera, Tom [Potter] and Sam [Adams]. I served in legislature under a variety of senate presidents and house speakers. Nobody exercised power the way Vera did. And it wasn’t always necessarily subtle…She used the amount of power she needed to do what she wanted. And I recognized it, I was never put off by her exercising power because she could just as easily go the other way and be helpful to you.
“By any measure, she was an unusual person in the most positive sense possible. She was never intimated. She always fought for what she believed in. If she felt like she was being put into a corner, she said, ‘let’s pull out the big guns.’ She did. It worked.
“I had been politics a long time. I was used to people sneaking around, telling you one thing and doing another. She sat me down and basically said I will make your life a living hell [on one issue]. I appreciated it.
“She was sweet, she was kind; she was wonderful. But ‘polite’ doesn’t come to mind. She was fun, entertaining, loved a good joke. But if she was pissed off, look out.”
“She never lost a war. She might have lost a skirmish or a battle. When she declared war on something, it was ‘man the battle station.'”
“She was tremendously influenced by her childhood, specifically escaping Nazi Germany, and all that was associated with. She was as passionate as she can imagine about how people were treated….She had just had that experience as a child. It was source of her passion. She appreciated more the most the ephermeal nature of life….it created in her a fire through all the time I knew her.”
Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), in a statement:
“She was among a generation of women who defied the circumstances of the time and led a revolution that allowed many other women, including me, to serve. As both a legislator and the first female Speaker of the Oregon House, she showed that women could be strong and effective leaders. It is not lost on me that my three sessions as Speaker are in no small part because of her.”
Former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi tells WW:
“I’m not sure I understood it at the time, but she will go down as one of the greatest mayors in Portland’s history. She really did love the people of Portland. You could see that in big things and little things she did.”
“I was in the room on many, many occasions where she was the one standing up for the public interest, whether it was the width of the greenway or the public right way, or public art, or historic preservation. …She was always thinking about how to move the ball for the public.”
County Chair Deborah Kafoury on Twitter:
“I feel so incredibly lucky to have grown up surrounded by amazing women leaders like Vera Katz, Betty Roberts, Norma Paulus and of course, my mother, Gretchen Kafoury. Sad to learn that Vera Katz has died. It’s hard to think of someone who has had more of an impact on this city than our former Mayor.”
City Commissioner Dan Saltzman tells WW:
“She was the only mayor I’ve served with who wouldn’t take no for answer. …I often ask myself when I’m taking a tough vote ‘What would Vera do?’ because she had a particularly pragmatic outlook.”
Former City Commissioner Erik Sten, in an email:

“Vera loved the city and loved being in charge of it. She was passionate and ready to fight for Portland. No one outworked her ever and no one did more homework. Her passion for detail and planning were great fits for a City that wants to get it right. As a new council member we often argued, but as I grew to know her on a personal level, I came to admire and respect her. It took time, and it wasn’t easy, but after working by her side and arguing with her for a decade, I came to realize there was no one better.

“She was Mayor for a long time and I think the city took her strengths for granted. Much of Portland’s current successes flow directly from her hard work. I don’t think we knew just how good she was when she was doing it, but she really set the standard for how a Mayor should act and react.

“She held power when necessary—taking all the bureaus, controlling PDC and reviewing virtually every line in the budget—but she also gave the right assignments to the right members.  Once we agreed on a task or an assignment, I knew what to expect.  She was consistent and always competent.”

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), in a statement:
“We ended up waging a spirited campaign for mayor against each other. Many times, we joked that her victory was one of the best things that happened to me, because while she was mayor, it led to me being elected to Congress.
“Vera was bold, shrewd, determined, smart, and an amazing role model. Our city would not be what it is without her. I will miss her constructive criticism, counsel, and friendship.”
Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), in a statement:
“Vera Katz was more than a pioneer. She was a force. She escaped the Nazis. She battled cancer. She ran the House. She ran the city. She was a natural leader. Vera led and people followed. As Speaker, she had partnership with Denny Jones. She was from Brooklyn and Portland. He was Prineville and Ontario. They didn’t have an urban-rural divide. They worked together. They’re both gone now, but that’s a part of her legacy I will always remember. Oregon has lost great human being.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler in a statement:
“Vera Katz was 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. 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.”

Phyllis Oster, director of international relations and cultural affairs when Katz was mayor, tells WW:

“One thing that was very important was how open she was about her illness and how willing she was to talk to other people. People would come up to her at events or while she was walking down the streets, and she would be happy to stop and talk to them and maybe give them some comfort about what she was going through.

“She was an extremely compassionate person. She loved Portland very much, and she loved Oregon, and I considered her to be a true public servant. She really did care about providing Portland with the best she had to offer. And she was an extremely private person. She was really private, and very few people actually ever went into her house. But she was so willing to give of herself to people in public. That was interesting dichotomy.

“She absolutely was an introvert. She wasn’t a glad-hander. She liked being with people, but she would have much preferred to be at home reading planning documents. But when she was with you, she was with you a 100 percent.  There was nothing phony about her. When she was there, she was on completely.

“You know, particularly now, with everything that’s going on in politics, she set such a high bar for honesty and humanity.”