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Our View: Former Portland Mayor Katz shattered gender norms in Oregon politics

Sometimes it’s difficult to realize how far Oregon has come since the 1970s

Published on December 14, 2017 9:45AM

Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz died this week after a life of notable achievements, including the popular Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, where this bronze sculpture is located.

Stasia Honnold

Former Portland Mayor Vera Katz died this week after a life of notable achievements, including the popular Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, where this bronze sculpture is located.

Portland Mayor Vera Katz, right, and County Chairwoman Diane Linn celebrate a solid lead in early returns for the 2003 Multnomah County $128 million income tax levy at the headquarters of ‘Yes on 26-48’ in Portland.

AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens

Portland Mayor Vera Katz, right, and County Chairwoman Diane Linn celebrate a solid lead in early returns for the 2003 Multnomah County $128 million income tax levy at the headquarters of ‘Yes on 26-48’ in Portland.


Oregonians always knew where Vera Katz stood. There was nothing wishy-washy about her.

That was part of the appeal of this outgoing, opinionated politician who shattered gender norms to become the first female speaker of the Oregon House and later served three terms as Portland mayor. In both roles, Katz had profound influence throughout Oregon.

She died Monday at age 84.

Sometimes it’s difficult to realize how far Oregon has come since the 1970s, when men received preference over women at lunchtime restaurants — because men worked, their time was valuable and, after all, they had to get back to work! Vera Katz came of political age in that era.

But it’s heartbreaking to recognize how far we have to go, as sexism endures in the 21st century. We long ago should have recognized, as was demonstrated by Katz and such legislative contemporaries as fellow Democrat Betty Roberts and Republican Norma Paulus, that women are just as competent and capable as men in political life and public leadership.

The tough-minded leadership of those women stands in sharp contrast to Kate Brown, who has yet to establish her raison d’être for being Oregon’s governor, and to Portland’s one-term mayors — Tom Potter, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales — who followed Katz.

Katz was a bold leader but also a deft politician. In the Legislature, she found common ground with Denny Jones, a conservative retired rancher from Eastern Oregon. She and Senate President John Kitzhaber were aligned so closely that “Kitz and Katz” determined years of public policy in Oregon.

Not everything Katz did was successful, or even a good idea. She pushed education reforms that included the much-maligned CIM and CAM for students — certificates of initial and advanced mastery. Depending on your point of view, they were either an ineffective, time-wasting requirement or a decent reform that was poorly implemented.

The backlash over CIM and CAM stands today as a warning against mandating onerous, top-down regulations that lack statewide understanding, let alone grassroots support. The governor and legislative leaders should remember that history before shoving one-sided environmental or tax bills through the 2018 Legislature.

Leadership is a mix of failures and successes — and the ability to understand both. Katz had the courage to lead, the boldness to act and the confidence to stay in the public eye, even when things did not go her way.

That is leadership. Which makes us wonder: What will be the legacy of today’s leaders?



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