On Jan. 9, 1989, the president of the Oregon Senate, a man named John Kitzhaber, welcomed the legislature to session.
“At this time I’d like to introduce The Honorable Vera Katz, Speaker of the House, who will address the joint assembly,” Kitzhaber said.
To that point, Katz was the only woman to hold the job.
“Governor Goldschmidt, distinguished colleagues, honored guests,” Katz said, “sixteen years ago, I entered this building as a freshman legislator. I’m sure I felt the same awe and excitement many of you must feel today …”
The room was full of people like Kitzhaber — who went on to become Oregon’s governor. And there were others, including Katz, who would leave an indelible imprint on Oregon.
Katz talked about how, when she first came to Salem, it seemed to her as if Oregon’s truths might as well have been chiseled into the marble walls of the capitol. But, she predicted, the state was evolving.
“Contemporary truth is spelled out in the cold hard numbers that reflect changing demographic trends. And those trends represent the character of our future,” Katz said.
Katz’s grasp of the demographic changes in Oregon was one of the strengths of her career. She herself straddled the trends. Slightly older than the baby boomers, she was born in pre-war Germany. Katz and her family, who were Jewish, escaped to America when she was eight. The journey that drew her to Portland in 1964 was a transformation story. Katz hit the campaign trail for Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Galvanized, she was elected to the Oregon House in 1972, alongside a 24-year-old Lewis and Clark grad named Earl Blumenauer.
“Vera came in with perhaps the most compelling personal story of anybody there. This was a little girl who escaped Nazi Germany hiking through the Pyrenees, at age 8, I think, who had gone from sort of stay-at-home mom to legislator in about a five-year period of time,” Blumenauer said.
Katz, Blumenauer and their cohort made strides on land use planning, open records laws, drug reforms, gay rights, and more.
Blumenauer, who went on to serve in Congress, watched Katz form alliances with other women in Salem, and with men like moderate Republican Sam Johnson, who became a mentor.
“She could be very direct and hard hitting, but Vera could also be very charming and disarming,” Blumenauer said.
In a matter of years, Katz rose to become House Speaker and came to know Sam Adams. He was the political director for the Oregon House Democrats. He’d later become Portland’s first openly-gay mayor, but when they met he was still a young man in the closet.
“[Her office] became a place where very talented people that couldn’t get the kind of work they wanted elsewhere gravitated to her,” Adams said. “She found a place for hardworking people … regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation. Her office became a magnet for smart, hardworking people.”
Their alliance propelled Katz into new territory.
After a bare-knuckles campaign against her former ally, Blumenauer, Katz was elected mayor of Portland in 1992, with Adams as her chief of staff. Katz was a politician with little direct administrative experience, and now she sat at the helm of a vast bureaucracy.
“She enjoyed that challenge. I remember when we moved into that office, there weren’t even networked computers yet. It was a time of amazing massive transformation in city services,” Adams said.
But Adams also calls Katz’s first term as a very challenging time. Voters had recently passed Measure 5, limiting property taxes on real estate, and weakening a pillar of funding for local governments. Adams says Katz spent much of her first term re-sizing the bureaucracy and keeping schools solvent with tens of millions of dollars in direct payments.
But Katz also invested in the city’s growth.
Chet Orloff is a historian who served on the city Planning Commission. Orloff sees entire areas of Portland that bear Katz’s imprint.
“The Pearl District, definitely, South Waterfront, Eastbank Esplanade … Streetcar … they have a thread running through them,” Orloff said. “They’re all about making this place more livable, and they’re all very design oriented … the finest legacy this mayor left is this collection of not just buildings, but places. They really have become places.”
Katz drilled down on urban design and initiated aggressive anti-crime programs.
The Rev. Chuck Currie, a longtime poverty and housing activist, first got to know Katz when he was a teenager and just getting involved in politics. When she ran for mayor, he voted for her. But he says he was taken aback when Katz declined to act on low-income housing — the very homeless policy position points her campaign had asked him to write.
“The east side of Portland was mostly ignored during her tenure. Homelessness was an issue that she did not address. She was somebody who’d worked in Legal Aid, someone who’d supported Bobby Kennedy,” Currie said.
Currie remembers many very tense council meetings with Katz staring at him, silently.
Katz sometimes spoke of crime as a livability issue, part of a larger plan for changing the city. Even her critics agree her most durable imprint was the reclamation of entire industrial neighborhoods. She negotiated with developers for the creation of glittering high-rises in the Pearl and South Waterfront. Katz got the streetcar system moving and enlisted the private sector to help fund parks and other amenities.
In her later years at City Hall, Katz had serious health issues — a breast cancer diagnosis in 2000 and uterine cancer in 2004. Many close to her say it was very difficult for her to take care of herself while running the city.
During this time, Currie said he swallowed his frustration with Katz and their disputes. He hand-wrote a letter expressing good wishes for Katz’s health and received a gracious handwritten response.
“Both my daughters were assigned projects in their third-grade class on famous Portlanders,” Currie said. “My daughter Catherine was assigned Vera Katz. I pulled out pictures of the flood from 1996.”
That year, the Willamette swelled 10 feet above flood stage, nearly overwhelming downtown’s iconic Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Currie recalls the sandbag brigade.
“I was there, the mayor was there, the whole city was there,” Currie said. “That’s one of the moments I’ll always remember about Vera … her leadership in that moment of crisis.”
Currie said he told his daughter that while he sometimes disagreed with Katz, the mayor loved her city and did her best.