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Vera Katz, Jewish Refugee Who Became Portland’s Beloved Mayor, Dies at 84

The feminist lawmaker, a late-comer to politics, helped turn her city into one of America’s most exciting

Liel Leibovitz
December 14, 2017
The Dalai Lama greets the public in Portland, Oregon, accompanied by the city's mayor, Vera Katz, on May 13, 2001.JOHN GRESS/AFP/Getty Images
The Dalai Lama greets the public in Portland, Oregon, accompanied by the city's mayor, Vera Katz, on May 13, 2001.JOHN GRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Vera Katz, the beloved three-term mayor of Portland, Oregon who helped transform the city into a Mecca for artists, chefs, and other creative individuals has passed away this week at the age of 84 after succumbing to leukemia.

She was born Vera Pistrak to Russian-Jewish refugees in Dusseldorf. In the fall of 1933, when she was still an infant, Vera’s family left for Paris, terrified of Hitler’s rise. When she was seven, they fled again, this time crossing the Pyrenees by foot into Spain. They eventually boarded a Greek steamboat headed for New York, and arrived there penniless and exhausted.

In America, Vera soon picked up the language and the pastimes, becoming an avid baseball fan and rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. She was particularly taken with Jackie Robinson: “She related really strongly to the idea of somebody fighting for acceptance, trying to break barriers,” her son, the journalist Jesse Katz, said in a recent interview. Eventually, she married Mel Katz, and followed him to Portland in 1964.

She was a stay-at-home mother, and was not particularly interested in politics until 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign engaged her imagination and prompted her to volunteer. She was 34, and soon her passion for politics swelled. She joined other women in picketing the Portland City Club to protest its men-only membership policy. She marched against the war in Vietnam. She volunteered at migrant farm camps, organizing birthdays for the children there and helping the adults organize.

The next natural step was seeking office, and in 1972, Kats was elected to the state’s House of Representatives, winning re-election repeatedly until 1990. She became the first woman to serve as Oregon’s speaker of the house, and was a tireless advocate of anything from prohibiting gender-based discrimination and toughening rape laws to school reform and gun control. She also created the legislature’s first Women’s Caucus, and, as befitting a real New Yorker, never learned to drive, which inspired her advocacy for better public transportation.

It was the latter issue that helped her gain prominence when running for mayor of Portland in 1992. She won, and gained national prominence for her support of the Yellow Bike Project, which provided brightly colored bicycles for free use by the city’s residents and helped make Portland a national leader of bike-friendly urban culture. She similarly helped orchestrate the city’s transformation from sleepy northwester small town to a quirky destination so prominent it merited a successful comedy series, Portlandia, mocking its devotion to organic foods, hand-crafted arts, and other hipster favorites.

After serving three terms in office, Katz decided not to seek reelection in 2004. She worked as a lobbyist for eight more years before retiring in 2012. She has been battling various cancers since 2000, but was diagnosed with acute leukemia earlier this month and entered hospice, passing away this Monday.

“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,” her son Jesse said, adding that his mother felt “an obligation to pay back her adopted home.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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