Vera Katz Was the First Mayor of the Portland We Know Today

The Oregon political legend has died at 84. Her life was epic.

By Zach Dundas December 12, 2017

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Vera Katz

When Vera Katz took the gavel as Speaker of Oregon’s House of Representatives in 1985, the Portland Democrat became the first woman to win the job. The state had never elected a female governor. It had elected one female United States senator. Women had won the secretary of state’s office a couple of times, and risen (if that's the right word) to the House. But the pantheon of state leadership—executive, legislative, and federal—was essentially a typological gallery of white Protestant males, extending from the extravagant bearded pioneer overlords of the 19th century through a succession of middle-aged proto-hipsters in midcentury modern glasses.

Katz, who died this week at 84, broke that mold, and just about every other one she encountered. A Brooklyn-reared Jewish refugee from World War II Europe, Portland’s third female mayor reigned for three terms. Between 1993 and 2005, she bridged two distinct eras: the sleepy and earnest Portland of the ‘80s, still bluish of collar and hungover from severe recessions and the timber industry's decline, and the fast-growing, progressive-but-contentious city of today. She also turned an office designed by charter to be weak into a seat of city-transforming power. In the context of Oregon, she pioneered for the extraordinary generation of female leaders who now largely run state government.

Willamette Week eulogized Vera as “Portland’s last successful mayor.” So far, true enough—she bequeathed the office to a series of one-term men, none of whom could master the city’s mutating political culture as she did. (Ted Wheeler, the lucky current incumbent, still has time.) But in important ways, Vera governed in very different circumstances than her successors. She won our last truly great mayoral election, beating future East Side-Congressman-for-Life Earl Blumenauer in 1992 to take over from the quasi-mythological Bud Clark, replacing a folksy über-Northwest citizen-bartender with an edgy, East Coast, workaholic determination to execute the many lofty urban plans Portland had forged in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

She was the last mayor to preside over what might be called Old Portland civic culture. In a small-big city, many major decisions could be cemented in a single room of power players. Being a member of the Arlington Club mattered. Everyone serious took the Oregonian’s editorial page seriously. Engagement, and thus her mandate, were robust: in her ’92 win over fellow local heavyweight Blumenauer, Vera garnered more than 130,000 votes—more than Wheeler needed in 2016 to swamp a fragmented primary field.   

Especially in her first two terms—a bout with cancer made Vera’s third round a comparatively muted swansong—she shaped the fabric of central Portland, from the Pearl to the South Waterfront to the Eastbank Esplanade that now bears her name. On a less flashy but equally formational level, the ‘90s and ‘00s saw the city’s final annexation and (fitful) integration of “outer” East Portland—the future center of the metro area’s population.

Did people complain? Hell yes, they complained. The business community complained that city hall was anti-business. Libertarian cranks railed against urban planning and mocked the streetcar and Esplanade. Everyday-crunchy Portlanders found plenty to hate about development, gentrification, and a shinier city determined to chase high tech, biotech, and the infamous creative class. There is a good chance that whatever bothers you about Portland in 2017—say, the cost of housing, or traffic, or hipsterism—can be traced back to Vera’s accomplishments and inevitable controversies and arguable errors. There’s also a good chance that she's partly responsible for important dimensions of your life here.

You can’t argue with her brio. On a local level, Vera wielded a touch of that old-school, gear-grinding LBJ moxie. She got things done. And in getting things done, she saw to fruition an epic life, perhaps best summarized in this tweet-length valediction from her son, Jesse:

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