Ted Wheeler Could Use Some Advice, Right?

So we imagined what former Mayor Vera Katz might have to say at this particular juncture in Portland history.

By Beth Slovic April 27, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

We couldn't help but wonder: What Would Vera Do?

Back in the day, embattled Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler attended Lincoln High School with former Mayor Vera Katz’s only child, Jesse. "I knew Vera initially as the lady who would tell us to keep it down," says Wheeler, who went on to earn Katz’s endorsement in his 2016 mayoral bid. In January, Wheeler hired former Mayor Sam Adams, Katz's chief of staff. 

But the links between the two mostly end there.

Wheeler, a 58-year-old former Eagle Scout who once summited Mount Everest and is descended from Oregon timber barons, maintains a battered reputation—one he rejects as unfair—for going it alone. Now he’s yet again back in the national spotlight, with both the New York Times and Washington Post running stories in recent days about his efforts to crack down on continued abolitionist/anti-capitalist protests around town that have in recent weeks targeted the Boys and Girls Club in North Portland and the Oregon Historical Society downtown.

Katz, who died four years ago at age 84, was a Brooklyn-reared refugee of Nazi Europe who danced under Martha Graham before moving to Portland in the 1960s with her young son and artist husband. She won election to the Oregon legislature as a “militant housewife” in 1972, and rose to become Oregon’s first female Speaker of the House before her election as the city’s mayor. She enjoys a legacy of corralling resources and people to forge deals, and Portland’s streetscape is studded with her contributions, from the Eastbank Esplanade to Old Town’s Lan Su Chinese Garden.

"She knew how to lead," says Sally Landauer, one of Katz's closest friends and her first campaign manager. "She would not have sat on her hands in City Hall and moaned."

It's not entirely fair to compare today to the 1990s. Katz thrived in another age, and elements of her leadership style then—bold, bossy and brash (she called the younger men on the Portland City Council her "boys")—would be out of place today. So would some of her ideas, including her embrace of the Giuliani-era  theory of policing, that called for cracking down on even minor crimes like breaking windows.

But nostalgia for Katz’s three terms as mayor, from 1993 to 2005, dogs Wheeler now, even though Katz battled her own unpopularity in the 2000 election when 19-year-old upstart Jake Oken-Berg nearly forced her into a runoff.

So we wondered: If she was around today, What Would Vera Do?

WWVD: On protests and police accountability, she’d back up Wheeler (mostly)

The racial justice protests that erupted after George Floyd's death in May 2020 have no precedent in Portland. And when Katz entered the mayor's office, about a year after Los Angeles officers beat Rodney King, she mostly deferred to her police command, including Portland's first black chief, Charles Moose, whom Katz hired in 1993.

A stickler for civility and order, Katz encouraged police officers to enforce small infractions, such as playing car radios too loudly, and she angered protestors, just as Wheeler has, most notably when advocates say police in riot gear swarmed and violently shot beanbags at May Day marchers in 2000.

She too oversaw controversy with the Portland Police Bureau. In 2001, Portland police killed José Mejía Poot after they arrested him and committed him to a psychiatric facility for boarding a TriMet bus 20 cents short of his fare while in a confused state. Mejía Poot didn’t have mental illness; he spoke little English and had epilepsy. Then-Chief Mark Kroeker gave medals to two of the officers, outraging many. Katz later forced Kroeker to resign.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch says Katz's tenure included many troubling incidents, but they set in motion the creation of a new police oversight system. "She was listening and shrewd enough to know when to engage the community," says Handelman. "Wheeler doesn't like listening to the community." (Says Wheeler, of his reputation for individualism: "People are literally dying by the day in this city. I don't have time for a six months process, right?")

One interesting footnote: Robert King, president of the police union at the end of Katz's tenure, now works for Wheeler as his public safety adviser.

WWVD: On PPS, she’d weigh in hard

While Portland schools operated remotely amid the pandemic and some families fumed, Wheeler kept quiet, never publicly questioning Portland Public Schools' decisions to keep kids at home when it appeared safe to return. "I have not been given any reason to second guess them," says Wheeler.

Katz was never quiet when it came to education, earning the ire of teachers when she was in the legislature. (Teachers endorsed opponent Earl Blumenauer in her 1992 mayor's race.) She didn't care that the city had no jurisdiction over schools. "They are all our kids," she said in a 2012 interview.

Katz prodded school-district leaders when she felt schools lacked rigor, even floating the possibility of a city takeover. "When she had an opinion, she let it right out," said Nancy Arlington, a former  Portland Association of Teachers union consultant.

But she regained teachers' favor while at City Hall by repeatedly backing up her tough talk with crucial funding from the city, including in a famous episode from 2003 when the "Doonesbury" cartoon mocked Portland for proposing to cut 24 days from the school calendar. Katz and Diane Linn, then county chair, helped avert a strike by raising taxes for schools after teachers offered to work for 10 days for free.

WWVD: On affordable housing and homelessness, she made incremental progress all around.

Portland's current crisis in affordable housing grew out of too little action in the '90s. But that's not because it wasn't on people's radar.

“There’s no question that the affordability of housing has declined in this city,” Katz told the audience at her 1997 State of the City address at the City Club of Portland (an all-male institution until Katz and friends forced it to include women in the '70s). Even her fans acknowledge that while Katz added to Portland's housing stock—she led the city's development of the Pearl and the South Waterfront, after all—growth came at the expense of the city's more vulnerable residents. Not everyone shared equally in the prosperity from rising real-estate prices, says former mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone.

One of the headline-grabbing initiatives of the Katz era to address homelessness was the sanctioning of Dignity Village, a self-governing community on out-of-the-way city-owned land. It provided the model for newer self-contained communities in Portland neighborhoods, which now constitute a small but growing slice of the shelter-to-housing continuum that is emerging as a centerpiece of Wheeler’s tenure.

Wheeler, for his part, doesn't blame Katz for not doing enough. "She managed crises that were not of her making when she was mayor," he says, "and it is my job to manage crises that were not necessarily of my making as mayor."

WWVD: On the garbage issue, she’d get all the trash picked up, if she had to do it herself.

In March, responding to an explosion of garbage on the streets and in the parks of Portland, The Oregonian asked, "How did Stumptown become Dumptown?"

Wheeler, with the help of Adams, then announced a new initiative called Clean and Green that would use volunteers to help clear the trash; another recently announced pilot program is paying a few dozen houseless and newly housed people $20 an hour to pick up trash around the city. "That's like painting a house that's on fire," says former Commissioner Randy Leonard of the volunteer effort; Leonard famously sparred with Wheeler when Leonard was at the city and Wheeler led the county.

Leonard says Katz would command public agencies to curb the problem—not rely on residents. "If that's his premise, Randy and I for once agree," says Wheeler. "Randy would be right if it stopped with volunteer efforts, but it doesn't."

For sure, Katz would not have tolerated so much grit in her beloved city, which her son, Jesse, has called her second only child. The proliferation of graffiti would have enraged Katz, says Sarah Bott, her former spokeswoman. A resident of Northwest Portland and later downtown, Katz did not drive, but would order her driver to pull over so she could pick up litter, Bott says. She despised even visual clutter, including billboards.  "You ignore that and the city begins to look like Las Vegas," she once said.

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