UPDATE (Jan. 2, 6:05 p.m. PT) — Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, the scion of an East Coast political dynasty who spent more than a decade serving his adopted hometown, has died.
Fish, 61, died Thursday surrounded by family, according to his office. That was just two days after announcing that the abdominal cancer he was diagnosed with more than two years ago had left him incapable of continuing to work.
A native of New York state, Fish attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and earned his law degree at Northeastern University. He was an employment lawyer by trade and began his public service career working on neighborhood issues in New York City.
The Fish family has been involved in government and politics since the Revolutionary War; His father and grandfather — Hamilton Fish IV and III, respectively — both served in the U.S. House of Representatives. His great-great-grandfather, also known as Hamilton Fish, was a congressman, senator, governor of New York and secretary of state to President Ulysses S. Grant.
Fish cut his political teeth as an aide to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, but moved west in 1996 after his wife, Patricia Schechter, got a professorship in the history department of Portland State University.
Fish quickly became involved in civic life in Portland, joining the board of the Housing Authority of Portland and raising money for local nonprofits that helped victims of domestic abuse and vulnerable children. He ran two failed campaigns for Portland City Council before finally winning a special election to replace Commissioner Erik Sten, who had resigned.
On the Council, Fish’s passions were affordable housing — he oversaw creation of a separate city agency devoted to housing issues — and expanding and renovating Portland parks. In 11 years at City Hall, he gained a reputation as a mature, steadying influence on a sometimes dysfunctional political body, an elected leader who enjoyed behind-the-scenes parrying with reporters and was passionate about making government work for everyone.
“At times, I would get frustrated with him because I wanted my way,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who frequently worked with Fish and other Portland officials on housing and social services issues. “He wanted me to see the bigger picture: that getting something was better than having nothing. In this day and age when our country is so torn apart with divisive politics, Nick really tried to bring the best out in everyone.”
“For him, it was important that people treat each other with respect and dignity,” said Zari Santner, who worked for Fish for several years as Portland parks director. “He truly believed that government can make a difference.”
In Portland’s unique commission form of government, City Council members are responsible for the day-to-day operation of city agencies. Considered even-keeled and analytical, Fish frequently drew the toughest bureau assignments — including controlling both the city water and sewer bureaus at the same time.
“That’s not an assignment that gets you a lot of attention or opportunities to cut ribbons or make flowery speeches,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz. “He restored public trust in them. He made sure they worked together. He was very much concerned about rate payers, and about low-income rate payers. … No matter what he was assigned, he was just like ‘OK.’ What are the principles and values? What do we need to focus on? I just learned so much from him.”
Again and again Thursday, those who knew Fish found similar words to describe the legacy he leaves behind — that of a consummate public servant.
“His style was that of a statesman, but his heart always prioritized people who didn’t have access to Portland’s economic boom,” said Liam Frost, who spent years on Fish’s staff.
Fish, who is survived by his wife and two children, announced in the summer of 2017 that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was public about the complexities of his treatment, and the times in which they made it difficult for him to work.
At the start of December, he announced that he was taking time off through the holidays to focus on his health and consult with his doctors.
Just two days ago, he announced plans to resign from the City Council upon the selection of a successor, saying his health had made continuing to work impossible.
“I am grateful for the support and love my family and I have felt over the last two and a half years that I have fought against cancer. And I am privileged to have had the opportunity to serve the community I love for the past decade,” he wrote. “Thank you for allowing me this honor, and for all that you do to make Portland special. The future is bright.”
City Council members must call a special election to fill Fish’s seat. It’s expected to occur in May. His family has not yet set details for a public memorial.
This story may be updated.