Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz dead at 84

Vera Katz. (Family Photo)

Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz died Monday, Dec. 11 from kidney failure.

She was 84.

Katz battled cancer years before she left the mayor’s office in 2004. She served as the city’s top elected official for 12 years. Portlanders elected her three times to be their mayor.

Before moving to Portland, Katz was born in Germany and was raised in Brooklyn.

She spent 30 years in Oregon politics and was the first woman to be Speaker of the Oregon House, where she served in the 1970s and 1980s.

As Portland mayor, she fought but failed to bring a major league baseball team to the city. Critics said during her tenure as mayor, an anti-business climate hung over the city, forcing outdoor company Columbia Sportswear to move out and into unincorporated Washington County in 2001.

But she had successes too. She was known for her role in the development of things like the Streetcar, South Waterfront and the Pearl District. She listed the Portland Classical Chinese Garden and the Eastbank Esplanade as her proudest accomplishments as mayor. In 2006, a statue of her was placed on the esplanade in her honor. She also helped expand the city’s light rail system.

READ MORE: Oregon politicians remember Vera Katz: 'She was a force'

Her Thoughts as Portland’s Mayor

One of her final interviews as mayor was held at the Chinese Garden. She was battling cancer at the time. She was doing well the day she spoke to KATU, but the cancer had taken its toll. The treatments would eventually destroy her kidneys.

“It’s been disappointing,” she said about her cancer, “because I had so many things that I wanted to do.”

During the interview, she reflected back on her time as mayor, acknowledging that she could have done better reaching out to the business community.

“We were so busy trying to make the changes internally, that my contacts over the years really dwindled down,” she said.

To date, Katz was the last mayor of Portland to serve more than one term.

Time in the Legislature

Katz was elected to serve in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1972 and served three terms as House Speaker.

In 1985, as Speaker, she was praised for bringing harmony to the infighting that had plagued that body in the previous legislative session. That praise of her leadership continued into the next session two years later.

“The last two sessions have been run better and managed better than many if not most in modern times (and) she’s a large part of the reason,” said then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt.

But the 1987 legislative session was still a roller-coaster ride for Katz. That year Democrats only controlled the House by a one-vote majority. Katz was criticized for holding “leadership luncheons” for lobbyists – outraging public interest groups. She also drew fire from doctors and lawyers after she sponsored a bill requiring them to provide services to the poor in order for them to keep their licenses.

But the criticism didn’t keep her from fighting on.

“It’s not easy this session, and I need to focus my energies and concentrate on the job that I’m doing so that we can walk out of here with our heads held up high and say, we’ve done the people’s business, and we’ve done a damn good job,” she said at the time.

Katz's son reflects on her life

"I am enormously proud of my mom and have been my entire life," her son Jesse told KATU via phone Monday.

He marveled at what his mother accomplished after fleeing Nazi Germany as a child.

She and her family immigrated to America, speaking only Russian and French. After growing up in Brooklyn she later found meaning in being an advocate.

"I think so much of what she did that was visible to the public was kind of repaying this country for welcoming her with open arms," Jesse said.

Politics breeds criticism, and she had her fair share. But her reputation remains solid.

"I think that she just always wanted to do the right thing and things that she could live with and that she would be proud of, and would really never compromise her values and her principles," Jesse said.

Katz's battles with cancer took a toll on her kidneys and she received dialysis for years afterward. She stopped dialysis treatment last week and entered hospice care. Jesse said she was also diagnosed with acute leukemia.

He thanked her three caregivers.

Reaction from Oregon leaders

Remembrances from Pacific Northwest political leaders poured in after Katz's death was announced.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said "we lost a true Oregon pioneer" and Katz left a "beautiful legacy" behind. Senate President Peter Courtney called her "a force" and a "natural leader." Current Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said she was "larger than life" and that "all of us in public service can aspire to her boldness, her candor, and her humanity."

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