Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
The passing this week of former Oregon House Speaker and Portland Mayor Vera Katz at age 84 took from the stage a pioneering politician whose deftness and accomplishments shine even brighter in comparison to those who followed her.
After fleeing Hitler's Germany with her family as a young girl, Katz embodied the American dream, moving west from Brooklyn to leave a lasting mark on this city, which she led as mayor from 1993 to 2005.
Employing the skills she sharpened as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Oregon House—an accountant's attention to detail and a psychologist's understanding of her colleagues' motivations—Katz artfully steered the Portland City Council to a series of landmark developments. She was a dealmaker, a motivator and a visionary who understood the art of the possible.
Her legacies are the landscape of this city. She shaped the Pearl District, the Portland Streetcar, Moda Center, the South Waterfront, light rail to the airport, the Eastbank Esplanade, a renovated Providence Park and even Tilikum Crossing, for which she laid the groundwork before leaving office.
Under Katz, Portland lived up to its nickname, "The City That Works," in a way it never has since.
We talked to the people who knew her, and combed our archives for a few defining moments from the last successful mayor. Here's what they said.
And here are four moments when the mayor's actions spoke for her.
On May 7, 1992, WW endorsed Katz for Portland mayor over her main opponent, Earl Blumenauer. We wrote:
On paper, Commissioner Blumenauer is the best-prepared and most technically proficient mayoral candidate in recent memory. In other words, all the parts are there. Yet we are convinced that Portland would be better off with Vera Katz as mayor.
Katz's record should speak for itself, but here's a reminder: She has proven herself to be one of the best state lawmakers in the recent history of Oregon. Katz has served her Northwest Portland district with distinction, courage and intelligence for 19 years. She has avoided even the hint of scandal during her years of public service and has earned a reputation for being a thoughtful, tireless public servant. Her warmth and charm make her likable; her guts and savvy allow her to play hardball politically when she has to.
On Feb. 8, 1996, Katz used her considerable political sway to call on Portlanders to construct an emergency, mile-long seawall along the Willamette River. Here's what happened:
Normal people—people actually familiar with the phenomenon of honest labor—built a makeshift sea wall out of plywood, plastic sheeting and 2-by-6s.
Most were volunteers who had been there since mid-morning. The mood was calm and businesslike, the volunteers perfectly confident that the wall – a hastily built structure hundreds of yards long— would be completed in time, less certain whether it would hold.
Here the city was at last able to bind together to fight a common enemy— and what enemy could be more universal than a flood? Neighbors may differ on immorality and politics, but virtually everyone is willing to come out against the wholesale washing away of children and pets.
In 1998, WW took a critical look at the Katz administration, but our cover story found the mayor had as many fans as critics. We wrote:
When she wants, Katz can be charming, stimulating and teary-eyed—and a gifted saleswoman.
"Vera is one of the few politicians who doesn't immediately set off voters' bullshit detectors," adds Lauren Moughon, former press secretary for Ron Wyden's and Tom Bruggere's senate campaigns. "She's real. It's one part New York attitude, one part love of Portland and one part Amazon warrior."
In 2002, WW rummaged through Katz's home recycling bin, in response to local officials ruling that curbside trash was public property. She was not amused:
We filed into the mayor's private conference room. The atmosphere, chilly to begin with, turned arctic when the mayor marched in. She speared us each with a wounded glare, then hoisted the bin of newspaper and stalked out of the room—all without uttering a word.
Our haul from Mayor Vera Katz is limited to a stack of newsprint from her recycling bin—her garbage can was well out of reach—but we assemble several clues to her intellectual leanings. We find overwhelming evidence that the Mayor reads The Oregonian, The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, U.S. Mayor and the Portland Tribune.
We also stumble across a copy of TV Click in which certain programs have been circled in municipal red. If we're not mistaken, the mayor has a special fondness for dog shows, figure skating and The West Wing.