Within minutes of City Commissioner Amanda Fritz learning of her husband's death in a 2014 car crash, Commissioner Nick Fish arrived in her office.
Fish arranged for then-Police Chief Mike Reese to take her to the crash site on Interstate 5, Fritz recalls. Fish then accompanied her on that grim drive.
"I found out later that Nick hated being in the back seat as much as I do, but he insisted I sit up front," she wrote in a recent statement. "Knowing that his mother died in a car crash, too, it must have been especially awful for him to spend those hours with me in my darkest day."
Portland City Hall could have used someone like Nick Fish last week.
Fish, 61, died of stomach cancer Jan. 2, more than two years after his diagnosis and just two days after announcing his resignation from a job he cherished.
His chief of staff, Sonia Schmanski, says he was so dedicated because the public had given him its trust. "He came to work every day to earn it," she tells WW. "He worked really hard every single day for 11 years to deserve it."
Fish's death seems to mark the end of an era in Portland government. As the longest-serving member of the Portland City Council, he loved offering counsel and witty repartee, thinking through an issue aloud and forming alliances to reach compromise. Those inclinations now seem scarce on an ideologically divided council—but they were, in fact, always rare.
"A bureau in trouble? Give it to Nick. Controversial issue? Give it to Nick. Time and time again he proved he could take care of it," wrote Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury on her Facebook page. "It is impossible to quantify just how better off Portland is because of his contributions."
An ex-New Yorker, he came to symbolize the best of Portland. His fondness for the city was palpable in a government building where many citizens had turned resentful. As Fritz revealed last week, Fish had been recruited to a housing job in the Obama administration but instead chose to stay in Portland.
The loss of Fish isn't just painful. It will measurably change how Portland government functions. Here are three ways.
City Hall has lost an old-school consensus builder.
If you measure politics along a left-right spectrum, Fish's death may create no change on the City Council.
But in an era of partisan, take-no-prisoners stridence exacerbated by social media, Fish practiced a make-no-enemies politics that no one else in the building attempts.
Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who served 18 years on the council, called Fish's death "one of the most significant changes to City Council in my lifetime."
Lindberg says Fish didn't just know how to count to three—the majority of votes needed on the council—but instead strove for all five. "Because of his background, temper and approach to the job, he's been the glue that keeps things together," Lindberg says. "He's constantly shuttling between other commissioners to work issues out."
Fish's aversion to conflict made him the subject of some teasing. But lobbyist Len Bergstein says Fish's ability to work collaboratively was one of his "superpowers," and described his ability to listen to others as "unique for politicians with huge egos." It's certainly rare: The current mayor, Ted Wheeler, and his three remaining colleagues all have prickly reputations.
Former Mayor Charlie Hales says what City Hall will most acutely miss is Fish's lawyerly mind—and his willingness to use it to help people who disagreed with him.
"Nick would play back to people what they had expressed, frankly in a better-organized way," Hales says. "And they would agree: 'Thank you for stating my point better than I could.' They didn't go away mad, they went away gratified they had been heard."
City Hall just lost its biggest champion for affordable housing.
Fish was too ill to talk to the press when he announced his resignation from the City Council on Dec. 31, but in his final public statement, he endorsed a ballot measure that would fund homeless services.
"Supportive housing is a proven, efficient tool to serve our most vulnerable citizens, and I have worked hard to ensure that council has maintained this priority," he wrote. "Later this year, I hope our region passes a new measure to fund the services that allow people to remain successfully housed."
It's not clear whether such a measure will appear on a ballot in 2020. The regional government Metro, which could refer it, is reluctant because its leaders prefer a transportation funding measure.
Fish's words may add new moral urgency. But his absence will clearly be felt by the campaign itself.
Fish worked tirelessly to pass the Portland housing bond in 2016 and, even while undergoing chemotherapy, the Metro housing bond in 2018.
"He came into office and left office focused on the very poorest people in our community," says Schmanski. "He has always been an advocate for people who have no money, living outside, and have one or two medical conditions, who need a lot of help and don't have a champion."
Israel Bayer, former executive director of Street Roots, recalls Fish delivering the first meals to people who had just found housing. Marc Jolin, who runs the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, says that just two months ago, "Nick attended the wedding of two people he met almost a decade ago when he delivered a holiday food box to their home."
No one else in City Hall shares Fish's zeal. Wheeler, who serves as the city's housing commissioner, has followed Fish's lead on housing issues; City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has mostly focused on tenants' rights.
Says former City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, "We certainly lost a champion of the underdog, particularly when it comes to housing and the homeless."
Fish's death opens the door for a second act for two former elected officials.
The City Council is expected to call an election in the May primary to fill Fish's seat. (A runoff, if needed, would be held in August.)
Former Mayor Sam Adams and onetime County Commissioner Loretta Smith are both considering a return to public life by seeking Fish's seat, multiple sources tell WW. That would make for a no-holds-barred election to replace him: Both
Adams and Smith are notoriously gloves-off campaigners.
Smith declined to discuss her plans for any run before "my friend is memorialized." But she did signal an interest in the race.
"Nick's passing left a leadership vacuum at City Hall," she says. "It's concerning for some of us who care about the future of the city."
Adams, who beat Fish in a 2004 City Council race and later served alongside him, declined to comment on a possible run. Instead, he hailed Fish's work, recalling a time Fish voted against a deal to renovate a stadium with public funds for the Timbers soccer team.
"His commitment to civility does not mean he was namby-pamby; he was not," says Adams. "I could count on him wanting to explore an issue. He was a great Portland policy nerd in the best sense of that phrase."
The race could also bring a fresh perspective. Metro Councilor Sam Chase, a former chief of staff to Fish, tells WW he intends to enter the race. So do Fritz staffer Cynthia Castro; Julia DeGraw, a community organizer who ran against Fish last year; and Margot Black, co-chair of Portland Tenants United. Meghan Moyer, a project manager for construction firm Skanska USA, tells WW she too is weighing a run. Also said to be considering a run is Kayse Jama, executive director of the nonprofit Unite Oregon.
In the meantime, the seat will remain empty. For the next four months, no one will replace him.