Her Uncommon Talent

Vera Katz died this week. She was 84.

There were, of course, obituaries and letters and stories of her impact and legacy chronicled in The Oregonian, Willamette Week, OPB, and more local outlets. There were also tributes in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the newspaper of record in the United States, The New York Times. There's no doubt that she left a huge impact on this place -- on Oregon, her adopted home.

I never got to know Vera Katz. Her three terms as mayor of Portland happened before I started high school, but I remember hearing her name often. When I first started engaging in Oregon politics in 2010, she was a legend. Her name was said with esteem, fondness, and respect.

Her story is an amazing one. She escaped Hitler's Nazi Germany as a child and moved to America without speaking a word of English. She moved to Oregon in 1962; ten years later she was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives, and later she went on to be the first woman ever elected Speaker of the House in Oregon. I always sort of knew that Katz was a big deal, but reading Speaker Tina Kotek's statement on her passing underscored her place in Oregon history. Here's an excerpt:

"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 terms as Speaker are in no small part because of her."

It strikes me that Vera Katz had to have been remarkably talented. She was elected speaker by a body that was overwhelmingly compromised of men, and in a time when the nation's attitudes on women were decidedly more sexist and less progressive than they are today. Willamette Week, in endorsing her in her first race for mayor, said she was "one of the best state lawmakers in the recent history of Oregon." That's a ringing endorsement, especially given that they picked her against an opponent (who is now a sitting U.S. Congressman) that the WW deemed "the best-prepared and most technically proficient mayoral candidate in recent memory" (on paper, at least). It speaks volumes to her uncommon talent.

Hundreds of Oregonians have shared statements and comments and memories of Vera Katz and the Portland landmarks she helped shape (an incomplete list from WW: the Pearl District, the Portland Streetcar, Moda Center, the South Waterfront, light rail to the airport, the Eastbank Esplanade, a renovated Providence Park). My favorite has been from Lauren Moughon, who worked in Oregon politics during Katz' career in Oregon. "Vera is one of the few politicians who doesn't immediately set off voters' bullshit detectors," she said. "She's real."

Vera Katz was my type of person, and not just because she was a real person. She worked for Bobby Kennedy, a political hero of mine. She was bold. She was progressive. She got things done. She left the world better than she found it. She was aspirational, she dreamed big, and she didn't let the fear of failure stop her (she tried to bring the MLB to Portland, among other things). She also cared more about the city than she cared about herself. There is a beautiful article in the Portland Tribune, written by Jennifer Anderson and published on August 27, 2004 that shows what I mean. It describes her time as mayor after she had been diagnosed with two types of cancer, and while she was receiving chemotherapy treatments on top of three-times-a-week kidney dialysis. "Her colleagues wish she would slow down," Anderson wrote.

She didn't slow down. She kept going, kept working hard. Reading about it was reminiscent of Tom McCall's legendary battle to save Oregon, just before he passed. Here's what he said: "You all know I have terminal cancer—and I have a lot of it. But what you may not know is that stress induces its spread and induces its activity. Stress may even bring it on. Yet stress is the fuel of the activist. This activist loves Oregon more than life. He can't have both very long. The trade-off with me is perfectly okay. But if the legacy we helped give Oregon and which made it twinkle from afar—if it goes, then I guess I wouldn't want to live in Oregon anyhow."

Vera Katz gave Portland her legacy, and even though she's gone, it's still twinkling from afar. Rest in peace, Mayor Katz.