Vera: Former Portland Mayor a “Female Superhero”

Sitting in a coffee shop, I ate breakfast with Vera Katz. The only clue I had that she is a self-proclaimed control freak was by how hard it was to get her to agree to meet. It took months. It was on her terms. What I found was an Oregon treasure. Vera is grateful, articulate and exceedingly charming – kind of a female superhero.

Vera (Pistrak) Katz was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1933. Along with her parents and sister, the family fled Nazi persecution eventually settling in Brooklyn, NY. Her father left the family when Vera was 11. Her mother was a hard worker. Vera earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College. A move to Portland with then husband, Mel, a painter, and their young son, Jesse, opened up a new life for Vera. A passionate social justice advocate, Vera spent years volunteering during the Kennedy era. Vera and Mel divorced early on, but after all these years Vera is proud to call Mel and his wife friends. Jesse Katz is a successful writer in Los Angeles.

In 1972 Katz, a Democrat, was elected to Oregon’s House of Representatives. In 1985 her colleagues voted her the first woman Speaker of the House, a role she held for three terms. Vera became Portland’s third female and fifth Jewish mayor in 1992, holding the position until 2005. Now, eight years later, she sat down to answer our questions.

Did escaping Nazi Europe as a child with your family affect you politically ?

It influenced my views on immigration. I am far more sympathetic to the arguments on immigration. I had to enter Canada before being allowed to come into the USA to become a legal citizen, but this was during the war and things were a little different.

Can you make a statement on your immigration views?

We need a comprehensive approach to find a way for people who have lived here, worked here and paid taxes to become legal citizens of the United States.

While in office did you experience anti-Semitism?

Quietly. It was never expressed overtly. It was always done in a quiet manner without my presence. But somehow through the grapevine I would know about it, or hear about it. It was a double whammy because it was not only my religion, it was my gender. I think the gender issue was more prominent at that time. How or why should a woman have this kind of position in our government, or in our city, or in our state … and did you know she is also Jewish?

Would you say the gender issue is at rest ?

No. The women’s issue is still alive and well. The issue now is the responsibility women have because they want to do everything. They want to break every ceiling, and it is almost humanly impossible to do that and to do all the tasks well.

Thoughts on gay, lesbian and transgender rights ?

The first piece of legislation that I introduced was a civil rights act that covered gender. I included gender and sexual orientation, and of course the committee took the sexual orientation out. We kept introducing bill after bill; I couldn’t pass it.

Thoughts on Israel?

It is very complicated. I try to be sympathetic to both the Palestinians and the Israelis, because they have to live together. We are right now in the middle of a nightmare. Israeli politics are getting in the way of trying to find a two-state solution. That’s worrisome.

What are your proudest achievements of your mayoralty ?

The development of the city, the growth of the city, the economic prosperity of the city, the cultural development of the city. The arts. Those make a great city. I was able to work with people who developed the Pearl District, the South Waterfront and the beginning of the east side.

What do you wish you could have achieved?

I wish I was able to work on the east side, because the east side was forgotten. But I felt the heart of the city is really downtown, and the central city is where we concentrated our work. To a large extent we neglected the east side, and many of the east-side communities were really not wanting or ready to accept big government help, and I regret that.

What else do you regret?

I thought about doing another term. I could have continued physically if they would have given me time for dialysis, but quite frankly 12 years is enough. People get tired of you. It was time for new, fresh blood. I regret not putting the finishing touches on the things I started in the Pearl. The last finishing touch was the Armory. I loved that building the minute I came to Portland. There were also finishing touches on the Waterfront, which needed some love and attention. I regret I couldn’t finish my fight with the billboard companies. If you take a look at some of the streets downtown, they are beginning to look like Las Vegas with the&n
signs and billboards, and that is not what Portland is about.

Are you taking that up with Portland ’s current mayor , Charlie Hales?

Oh yes, I already did.

What should people know about you ?

I like to get results. Somebody else can debate it. I like to hear all the sides, and then I like to take action.

What do you think about the sculpture of you on the Esplanade?

The sculpture was a private gift. That surprised me. I was not aware this was going on. My friends take me down to the waterfront, and I am wondering what the hell are we doing down here. And I see my son who must have come from LA, and I realize something is going on, then they unveiled this. It was such a touching moment. What I loved about it, my nose is constantly running. I don’t know if you noticed, but I think it is in my right hand a tissue and around my neck my pearls.

People dress me once in awhile and put a hat or a scarf on, and once in awhile there is also anti-Semitic graffiti, which the Park Bureau takes off immediately. But people love to take pictures of themselves with the statue. It has become some kind of an icon on the east side.

What do you want to be remembered for?

I want people to remember me for my love of the city, my hands-on caring for the city. Looking at the city and worrying about public safety, the schools, I raise money for the schools by traveling around the state, asking for additional funding at the next legislative session. I gave the first million dollars to the art museum and then to the symphony and then the opera. I was a geek when it came to the budget. I know the budget inside and out. I needed to make a strong statement to support the arts. This was over a period of time.

Are you writing a book ?

Oh gosh, no. I can’t remember half of my life. I get requests. My son is a writer and he included some of my life in his first book. But I never even talked to him about it. It is hard work.

Gloria Hammer divides her time between Portland and Hood River.


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