Our Opinion: Vera Katz, Portland's splendid torch
She was a tough, old broad, and wouldn't mind us saying so.
Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz died on Monday, but the mark she left on this city and this state is as indelible as the bronze statue of her that graces the Willamette River's Eastbank Esplanade, which also bears her name.
It seems odd that a German-born Jewish refugee, raised in Brooklyn, would emerge as one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Pacific Northwest.
Or, maybe it's not odd at all.
Katz always seemed to be in a hurry. After moving to Portland in the early 60s, she volunteered for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign, Caesar Chavez's grape boycott and the successful effort to break the gender barrier at Portland City Club.
She was a feminist before that term was trendy. She was a champion for marginalized communities, including gays and lesbians, when that stance still carried a political risk.
Katz was an unapologetic liberal and natural politician. She won a seat in the Oregon statehouse in 1972, worked her way up the leadership ladder and in 1985 became the first woman Speaker of the House and the first Speaker to hold that powerful post for three consecutive sessions.
Her work for education reform was so dogged that the landmark school reform she authored, officially named the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century, was better known as the Katz Bill.
In 1992, she defeated Earl Blumenauer in the Portland mayor's race, easily winning re-election in 1996 and 2000. She retired in 2005 but didn't stop fighting - in this case, cancer.
We didn't agree with all her decisions, and many of her initiatives flopped (she never could get major league baseball to the Rose City). But her handiwork can be seen along the light rail lines in her adopted city, the South Waterfront, the River District, Pearl District, Chinese Garden and Esplanade.
Those brick-and-steel projects are a testament to what set Katz apart from most Oregon public officials.
As speaker and mayor, Katz earned a reputation as a master negotiator — equally adept at charm and intimidation. In a state and city that often gets bogged down in process, Katz was decisive.
She was happy to listen, but only up to a point. And then it was "Vera's way" or no way.
The style left many egos bruised and many underlings quaking at times, but it made this city and state a better place.
One of the many tributes that flooded our inbox Monday came this reminder from her family.
In her last State of the City speech, Katz closed her remarks with a George Bernard Shaw quote she heard when she was in a hospital intensive care unit. "My life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations"
Katz closed by saying she hoped she'd lived up to those words.
In our view, she did.