Katz Pajamas

She's (Still) the Boss

Former three-term mayor Vera Katz talks up President-elect Obama, her new job, and why Sam Adams should always take her calls.

By Bart Blasengame May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

Four years after leaving the mayor’s office, you’re back as an “of counsel” for Gallatin Public Affairs, which will allow you to have a part-time hand in shaping local politics. I’m reminded of the Michael Corleone quote: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Well, I had to convince myself to come back. It took three months to put the arrangement together, but I was ready to go back and do some work. I wasn’t very happy being a retiree. Even though I teach a class at Portland State, it’s just once a week. I wanted more than that. I wasn’t being mentally challenged or stimulated.

What, exactly, will you be doing? It could be the development of public policy; it could be advocacy or crisis management. It could be anything. And I have the ability to make a decision as to whether I want to take on a client or not and how many hours I want to work. It’s a very nice relationship.

Barack Obama is sworn in this month. During his campaign we heard a lot of comparisons to Robert Kennedy; you actually worked on Kennedy’s 1968 presidential bid. Does the comparison hold up? Absolutely. It’s the same feeling that I had when I heard Robert Kennedy speak: the voice of hope and optimism and love for the country and caring about the people that they represent. It’s the same voice.

Did you watch the election returns? I was glued to the television for eighteen months. I always watch at home. Always. I don’t like the noise, the crowds of election-night parties. People have always gone crazy with me, saying, “You’ve got to come to this party.” No, thank you. I’m watching it at home. I’ll call you the next day.

The word “bipartisanship” is getting thrown around a lot now. From your experience as mayor and in the Oregon House of Representatives, is true bipartisanship possible?? I think so. Former Governor John Kitzhaber and I did it [while both were serving in the House of Representatives]. We came in as presiding officers and made the commitment. Assuming you have legislators who are willing to do that and aren’t into party politics, you can pick issues that both sides can come to an agreement on.

We’re watching President Bush vacate the White House. How difficult is it, in your opinion, to cede power like that? You may not feel it immediately, other than the fact that you have no place to go the next day, but your security is gone, your income is gone, your power is gone, the programs you’ve been working on are gone. You feel very lonely and irrelevant. That’s the reason why, when I was asked to take on some projects like chairing a committee to plan Portland’s first new bridge in thirty-five years, I would say, “Absolutely, I’ll do it.”

This month your former chief of staff Sam Adams takes office as mayor. Is that like seeing your kid graduate college? It’s very exciting. He’s focused, he’s smart, he had eleven years with me and saw how a mayor’s office develops and grows. I have a good relationship with him—he’s shared some things with me that he probably hasn’t with anybody else—but I have to be careful how many times I pick up the phone. Though I know if I had some advice to give him, he’s going to listen … maybe.

Is it still weird seeing the statue the city erected in your honor on the Eastbank Esplanade? The funniest thing is when I go down there and people have dressed me. They put a hat on, or a scarf if it’s cold. Somebody even went down there and put a lot of lipstick on me. But that seemed a little too close to [Sarah Palin] territory.

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