Vera Katz, who broke gender barriers as the first woman to become Oregon’s House speaker, deploying a tough-but-tender political style to also win three terms as Portland mayor, has died at 84.
She died at home in bed around 4 a.m., her son Jesse Katz said.
“It was as tranquil a setting as you could imagine,” he said.
The family decided to begin hospice care for Katz after she was diagnosed with leukemia last weekend. The leukemia was the third cancer diagnosis that plagued the political powerhouse.
Katz survived breast cancer in 2000 and an aggressive cancer of the reproductive system in 2004. The chemotherapy treatment for her second cancer left her with kidney problems for which she underwent dialysis treatment three times a week. She stopped kidney treatment when she went into hospice last Monday, and her son said kidney failure likely caused her death.
She was a pioneering female politician, a bold and endearing Portland mayor and a trailblazer for progressive causes such as gender equality, gay rights and education reform.
“We lost a true pioneer today,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tweeted Monday.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury remembers watching Katz and her mother, former city commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, find common ground on issues in City Hall, even when they disagreed.
“They were two strong, opinionated, amazing, talented women,” said Kafoury, whose mother died in 2015.
Katz was a force, Kafoury said. “She didn’t shy away from tough problems or back down to people who didn’t agree with her.”
Her ability to move her agenda forward, call people out when she felt it necessary and stand by her principles and position when challenged shuttered any doubts people at the time may have had about a woman’s ability to work in politics, Kafoury said.
“When you grow up in a community where the speaker of the house is a woman who then becomes the mayor, you really are led to believe that girls can do anything,” she said.
Former Katz staffer and close friend Phyllis Oster and her husband had weekly outings with Katz over the last 10 years as her health failed her. They talked politics and current affairs over lunch and then would take her grocery shopping. Katz would take the time to talk to anyone who approached her on those outings, Oster said.
“She would much rather stick her nose in some details about planning or the police bureau than do the socializing that a lot of people did, that politicians do,” Oster said. “You would never know that because when she was with people in a social setting, she was always with them.”
Her friends and colleagues remembered her fondly.
“She was a remarkable leader, a charismatic person, a loving friend,” said Dan Lavey, president of Gallatin Public Affairs, where Katz worked for four years. “Vera Katz is the only politician who would ride in the Rose Parade and people would cheer.”
Senate President Peter Courtney reacted with a statement, saying “Oregon has lost a great human being.”
He said she was much more than a pioneer.
“She was a force,” Courtney said. “She escaped the Nazis. She battled cancer. She ran the House. She ran the city. She was a natural leader. Vera led and people followed.”
First elected as a legislator in 1972, Katz rode into public office on Oregon’s progressive wave, serving in the Legislature and Portland City Hall for a combined 30 years. But she didn’t stop working after leaving the mayor’s office, her last elected position, in 2004.
In July 2007, she accepted then-city Commissioner Sam Adams’ invitation to chair a light-rail committee. She dove in to the complexities of transportation planning, a new avenue for her at the age of 74. At a birthday celebration in 2007, she joked with former staffers that she wanted to run for mayor again.
In 2008, Katz joined the Portland office of the influential lobbying firm Gallatin Public Affairs, taking on such clients as Timbers owner Merritt Paulson as his team sought the city’s help securing Major League Soccer status.
She retired from Gallatin in February 2012 at 78.
Katz’s health challenges limited her mobility around that time, her son said, and she started to spend a lot more time at home.
His mother remained a “total news junkie,” Jesse Katz said. MSNBC blared from her television around the clock. The Los Angeles journalist and his mother would often have “very intense” political conversations over the phone.
Katz spent much of her early life in upheaval, her middle years putting her childhood behind her, and her later life coming to terms with it all.
Katz was born Vera Pistrak on Aug. 3, 1933, in Dusseldorf, Germany, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor. Her parents, Lazar and Raissa Pistrak, were Menshevik Jews who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution brought their political opponents to power.
Two months after Vera’s birth, sensing danger again, the Pistraks left for France with her and her older sister, Zena. In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded France. This time the Pistraks escaped by hiking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.
Katz, then 7, remembered her father cracking under the strain, ripping Vera’s doll from her arms and hurling it off a cliff.
From Spain, the family arranged passage to Manhattan. Katz’ father, whom she once described as “an intellectual drifter,” worked as a machinist in a factory. When Katz was 12, he left the family and she rarely saw him. She watched her mother toil in sweatshops knitting sweaters for soldiers and sewing evening bags at night. She blamed her father. She felt unsettled.
“I had absolutely no idea who I was,” Katz once said of her teen years, “what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
But she gravitated toward advocacy, politics and the arts. She thought of becoming a lawyer. Then, while at Brooklyn College, she studied dance under the great modern dancer Martha Graham.
“If you look at her public life and all the years of what she gave to her community you can understand a lot of that by looking back at what she came from,” Jesse Katz said. She felt “an obligation to pay back her adopted home.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology in 1955, she applied to work for the United Nations but was turned away. “They looked at me and said you need a master’s and a Ph.D.,” Katz said. “They didn’t want to hear from me.”
She married Mel Katz, an artist, in 1964, then moved with their baby son, Jesse, to Portland.
She spent four years as a stay-at-home mom, painting Christmas ornaments and hand-sewing Jesse’s Halloween costumes, before yielding to the pull of protest politics. Listening to Robert F. Kennedy talk about the poor and disadvantaged stirred memories of her family’s struggle. She wanted to give back. She volunteered with Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
After his assassination, she rose to lead the local Kennedy Action Corps, focusing on migrant worker issues.
Separately, she and a group of “politically oriented women” also picketed the Portland City Club to protest its men-only membership and soon won membership for women. In 1972, overcoming such labels as “militant housewife,” she beat Republican incumbent Fritzi Chuinard to become Northwest Portland’s state representative.
At the crest of the women’s movement, she joined then-Rep. Norma Paulus and Sen. Betty Roberts to create the first Women’s Caucus in the Legislature. With 12 votes and control of one committee, they moved bills to tackle gender discrimination, toughen rape laws, and even allow women to wrestle. They also helped pass the Oregon Equal Rights Amendment.
In a 2012 interview, Katz called her role in expanding the state’s civil rights act to outlaw gender discrimination “the most important” of her career.
But far from a single-subject lawmaker, Katz fought for everything from gun control to funding for Oregon State University’s veterinary school. As early as 1973, she pushed lawmakers to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, which Oregon didn’t do until 2007.
She made friends with rural lawmakers and with Republicans. Her political deftness and tender-but-tough demeanor helped propel her into leadership roles. In 1977, she became the first House chairwoman of the budget-writing Ways and Means committee. By 1985, she was the state’s first and the nation’s second female speaker of the House.
“She was approachable on the outside and made of steel on the inside,” said Lavey of Gallatin Public Affairs.
Katz often talked about the feminization of power, the notion of gaining power by sharing it. She formed partnerships over her three terms as speaker, her most legendary with then-Senate President John Kitzhaber. Together “Kitz and Katz” worked to reform taxes, workers compensation and health care.
Former State Senator Margaret Carter met Katz when she started at the legislature in 1985. Her first impression of the former House speaker was that she was “bossy” but she came to appreciate Katz’s high, but fair expectations, her mentoring of other politicians and her dedication to her work.
“Vera was a true visionary,” Carter said.
Katz also sat down with the gun lobby in 1989, leading to the first major gun-control legislation in decades. Yet Katz was not always collaborative. Perceiving the teachers’ unions as an obstacle, she pushed through her sweeping Oregon Educational Reform Act for the 21st Century in 1991 without them.
That year, she dove into Portland politics. She beat Earl Blumenauer, with whom she had served in the Legislature, in the first of what would be become three terms as the city’s mayor.
She marked her years in City Hall with some big ideas that foundered such as capping the Interstate 405 freeway, moving Interstate 5 to open up the eastside waterfront and luring a major league baseball team. She frayed a few key relationships with neighborhood activists and the city’s business community. But under her leadership, the city moved from West Coast backwater to nationally recognized destination city. The Portland Streetcar, the shiny Pearl neighborhood, the South Waterfront condo developments and Oregon Health & Science University-backed biotech projects, the Chinese Classical Garden, the Eastbank Esplanade all bear her stamp.
“She was a very, very effective mayor,” said Lavey of Gallatin Public Affairs. “She was not just a caretaker. She was a change agent.”
And she continued her passion for education, helping broker several bailouts of increasingly cash-strained Portland school districts.
Portland Commissioner Nick Fish said Monday the former mayor left an impression on him even though their tenures did not overlap.
“She’ll be remembered as a strong mayor in a weak-mayor form of government,” Fish said.
He said spoke to Katz recently by phone when she was on her way to dialysis treatment.
“She was warm, funny … as ever,” he said.
Katz and her husband, Mel, divorced in 1985 and while Katz dated initially, she never remarried. In many ways, she made her work her life. And yet, as she aged, she also found time to heal some of the injuries from her childhood.
In 1997, she traveled to Israel as one step toward coming to terms with her Jewish heritage and the Holocaust. “Israel made me look at myself in the mirror and face myself,” Katz said upon her return, “and in a way, come clean and feel good about who I am. And feel proud about who I am. And feel less guilty about the fact that I survived and others didn’t.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she joined local business leader Sho Dozono to lead a friendship flight to New York City.
There she attended the Feast of St. Francis at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in the Upper West Side neighborhood where she had lived with her mother and sister. As a child, she never dared enter the massive cathedral, fearing that Jews were unwelcomed. But at age 68, she shared the carved Gothic lectern with Robert Kennedy Jr., the son of the man who inspired her to political activism so many years earlier.
She told New Yorkers, “We prayed for you, cried with you. We decided to bring ourselves, to give our love and to comfort you.”
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she reached out for the first time in years to her older sister, Zena Linden. Divided loyalties spurred by their parents’ divorce had driven a wedge between the women. Linden, who became a psychoanalyst and lives in California, had never seen Katz in her public role. The two began talking regularly by phone. Katz served out her term, and Linden visited Portland on the eve of her sister’s retirement.
The two had tea at the Chinese Garden. They talked about their childhood, their escape from the Nazis, their trek over the Pyrenees. Then Linden sat on the sidelines at Katz’ retirement gala and watched wide-eyed as her “baby sister” received a long line of well-wishers with grace and wit.
“I never saw the effect she had on people,” said Linden, then 79, that night. “This is awe-inspiring. She sets the world on fire.”
Staff writers Gordon Friedman, Brad Schmidt and Lynne Terry and former reporters Erin Barnett, Beth Slovic and Jeff Mapes, contributed to this report.