City Commissioner Nick Fish, a stabilizing force in Portland City Hall who advised and tempered three mayors, has died of stomach cancer, two days after announcing his resignation. He was 61.
Fish, a Harvard graduate and labor lawyer, joined Portland City Council in 2008, and rapidly established himself as a champion for social services, a caretaker of the city's parks, and a peacemaker between progressive city officials and local business leaders.
A tearful Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury this afternoon paid tribute to her friend.
"I think it's probably going to be said a million times about him but he was true public servant," Kafoury says. "He loved everything about being a public servant even when it was difficult to be a public servant. He was such a good friend to so many people because he cared so much about people. He was a very special person and I'm very sad."
Nicholas Stuyvesant Fish came from a long line of public servants. Four generations of Fishes served New York in Congress. Nick Fish's father, U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y) served 13 terms and famously broke with his GOP colleagues to vote for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
Nick Fish left New York in the late 1990s, when his wife, Patricia Schechter, then a history professor, took a job at Portland State University. While practicing law here, Fish first ran for City Council in 2002, losing to Randy Leonard and then again in 2004, losing to Sam Adams.
Like the Portland Pilots' women's soccer team, of whom he was a die-hard fan, he kept trying and won his council seat on his third try in 2008.
His onetime rivals today had nothing but praise for him.
"It's just awful. It's so unfair. He was so vigorous," says former City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who beat Fish in the 2002 race for council and later served alongside him. "He lived and breathed Portland."
"He was just a good person," Leonard told WW, repeatedly pausing as he broke down in tears. "He was more patient with people than I was and he would counsel me about that. He made me a better person."
Leonard cited Fish's father and grandfather's legacy of public service in driving him to revel in the "rubber chicken dinner" circuit.
"I think he felt like he was living his family's legacy and he did not want to let them down," Leonard says. "He had this ideal of public service. It was a legacy that he not only accepted but embraced and lived every day."
On the council, Fish delighted in his work leading the Portland Housing Bureau and Portland Parks and Recreation and also put in difficult stretches fixing the embattled Bureau of Environmental Services and the Water Bureau. His leadership was widely credited as staving off an effort by dissident ratepayers to wrest those utilities from City Hall.
Fish was the driving force behind two housing bonds and an early enthusiast for the Portland Thorns and Timbers soccer teams. He stayed on the job for two years after his 2017 cancer diagnosis, only announcing his resignation on Dec. 31—two days before his death.
"Nick was a dear friend and a trusted public servant," Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement. "He fiercely advocated for all Portlanders and always led with compassion, wit and intelligence.He as instrumental in shaping Portland for the better and I often sought his advice and guidance.We are especially thinking about his family and his team – as we continue to grieve his passing.
"Nick was taken too early. He will be dearly missed."
Housing advocate Israel Bayer was among the longtime observers of City Hall who today said Fish stood out from most politicians.
"Nick was a friend of the poor," Bayer tells WW. "On more than one occasion, Nick would visit people experiencing homelessness and offer individuals their first meal after getting into housing. Nick did this quietly and always asked for it to stay out of the press.
"There's no elected official," Bayer added, "that cared more about bringing people together across different political spectrums to work towards giving people a safe place to call home."