Defining the Decades

Portland power players of the past

By Carl Abbott March 16, 2012 Published in the January 2012 issue of Portland Monthly


Harvey Scott

A statue atop Mount Tabor pays tribute to Scott’s five-decade reign as editor of the Oregonian. A conservative Republican, he promoted the Oregon Historical Society and the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 while opposing “radical” causes like women’s suffrage and public high schools. 

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George Baker

A glad-handing theater impresario, Baker led an administration marked by police crackdowns on unions and socialists and flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan, smothering progressive politics for a half-century. Business-minded voters on the new east side gave him a 16-year run as mayor. 

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Ernest B. MacNaughton

As Reed president from 1948 to 1952, he rescued the college from financial instability. But ’20s-era Portlanders knew him as a real estate manager, banker, and civic leader who championed modern office blocks and affordable housing. 

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

Not exactly a Portlander. But the New Deal stamped the city and region like nothing before or since. Cheap electricity from Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams dragged the Pacific Northwest into the 20th century. No New Deal dams. No Silicon Forest, or Google and Facebook data centers. 


Edgar Kaiser

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser sent son Edgar to run huge shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, which rolled out hundreds of ships during World War II. Edgar bypassed local officials to build the Vanport housing project. The racially diverse crews the shipyards attracted changed Portland’s social mix forever. He also imported “master builder” Robert Moses to give the city its first freeway plan.

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Robert F. Kennedy

In ’50s Portland, gambling racketeers and corrupt Teamsters ran the city with payoffs to police and officials. As chief counsel for the US Senate’s muckracking McClellan committee, Kennedy turned the national spotlight on Portland, upending a conservative, corrupt city, and ushering in a new, progressive era. 

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Howard Vollum

Cofounder of Tektronix, Vollum built a tiny radio lab into a huge electronic instruments company, the first sapling of the Silicon Forest. 


Henry Richmond

As the first director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, Richmond hammered Oregon cities and counties to create a tight urban growth boundary, an energized city center, and suburbs that can’t zone away the poor.


Gus Van Sant

The city was already home to fine writers like William Stafford and Ursula K. Le Guin. But with Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), writer-director Van Sant made Portland a star of edgy mass culture—status the city probably wouldn’t have achieved without him.

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Peter Kohler

In 18 years as president, Kohler transformed Oregon Health & Science University from a midsize med school to a biomedical powerhouse. He doubled OHSU’s employment and septupled research dollars. Upon retirement in 2006, he left the university financially overextended but among the top 20 med schools ranked by the National Institutes of Health. 

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Image: Brian Jim


Vera Katz

This daughter of Menshevik refugees shaped Portland’s progressive politics, first in 20 years in the legislature (including six years as Speaker of the House), then in 12 years as mayor. In her push for signature urbanist policies, Katz earned a bronze effigy overlooking the Eastbank Esplanade. 


Carrie Brownstein

Brownstein certified Portland’s coolness when her band Sleater-Kinney chose the city as its base. A decade later, her TV satire simultaneously mocks and mines our creativity, while pinning Portland quirkiness in the nation’s mind like a specimen butterfly.

Portland State University professor Carl Abbott’s new book is Portland in Three Centuries.

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