Snazzy Dresser, Accomplished Politician—Vera Katz
…and a Sharp Critic to the End
By Bill Gallager

Mayor Vera Katz seems to be having a hard time imagining the transition from office-holder to citizen. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s held office since 1972. Or maybe it’s just that she’s not sure she’ll have a life as a citizen. After all, her marching orders to her oncologist are to keep her alive until December 31, 2004, her last day as Mayor of Portland.

She’s been described as “a warrior” in the Oregonian, as “smart, sharp, a snazzy dresser” in the Portland Tribune. She’s been applauded for her “intelligence, toughness, wit and vision” by Willamette Week. And described as “the most accomplished woman in the city’s political history” by her son Jesse.

A couple of weeks before Tom Potter won the race to replace her as mayor, she sat down to talk with me. I hadn’t come to praise her, or bury her. I’d always considered her a pretty straightforward interview, willing to actually answer the questions I asked rather than the questions she wanted me to ask, as most politicians do. She didn’t disappoint.

When we first sat down to talk her press aide Scott Farris handed me a one-sheet titled “Proudest Accomplishments.” I politely set it aside and told Mayor Katz I’d rather talk about her than her accomplishments. “Fine,” she said.

The problem is, you can’t talk about her without talking about her accomplishments because she doesn’t talk about what she’ll do, she talks about what she’ll accomplish. But that’s changing.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation and the order of the Mayor’s comments has been re-arranged for the sake of continuity.

BG – What business do you want to take care of?

VK – I told my oncologist to keep me alive until December 31st . Of course I’d love for her to be more successful than that. But she promised that she would do that because I wanted to take care of business here. That’s just who I am. And now I’m beginning to look at my own private life. What does it mean? Am I….? Where am I gonna….? So many questions and I don’t have any answers. So I’m beginning now to focus a little bit more on me.

BG – Is there anything you want to do before …you know…go somewhere…

VK – Before I die? (She laughs)

BG – I’m sorry. Anything you want to see? Visit?

VK – I had planned my whole life differently. I didn’t think I was going to die…well…not so soon. I didn’t say to myself I’ve got to visit so and so right away. I wanted to find some leisure time. I wanted to go to the movies. I don’t go to the movies. I had to listen to you for your movie reviews. I wanted to just get up one morning, get on the bus and just walk around the city and look at things I just hadn’t been able to spend a lot of time with. That’s where my head was at. Go visit my son and my grandson...and all of a sudden that just sort of shifts, totally. That’s what I’m now in the process of starting to figure out. What is it that I’ve got to accomplish? What are the financial issues that I need to manage?

BG – Why not just go to the movies?

VK – I can do that. That won’t endanger my health. I don’t want to have to worry about, “Well, I can’t travel to Beijing, because they may not have a dialysis unit, or whatever.” Those are the things that I now need to begin to think about.

BG - As for your health (she has been diagnosed with adenosarcoma of the reproductive system, which is a rare, aggressive cancer), you’re not minimizing it, are you?

VK – It’s serious, no question about it. It’s aggressive. There’s very little known about it. It’s very rare. When you talk to experts they have no clue about what you’re even talking about. So my oncologist is working through all kinds of mixtures to see if they can at least stop the growth, which up to now we’ve been able to do.

BG – You’ve talked about how the treatment—the chemo—quote “creates a nightmare in your stomach and in your tastebuds” and you’ve talked about the nausea and not eating. So, have you thought about using medical marijuana?

VK – I have no pain. There’s just nausea and no appetite. But it would be very hard for me (to use medical marijuana). It’s just so ingrained in my bones that that’s against the law. You just don’t take drugs unless you change the drug policy of this country. But that’s a whole other topic. But I’ve got to tell you...who knows? No. No. I’ll go do acupuncture before I’ll do marijuana.

BG – Has work been a distraction from your medical problems?

VK - Oh, it’s been wonderful. I would have been miserable if I didn’t have to get up every morning and go to work.

BG – Ever regret going into politics rather than into the private sector? And if you hadn’t gone into politics…what?

VK – Well actually, I worked in the private sector. I worked for Timex watches. I worked for B.T. Babbit—maker of Babo—and Charles and Tell hair products. This was a long time ago. I worked on new product development. So I did work in the private sector.

BG – But once you got into politics, you never got out. Kind of like the Mafia. VK – No. That was my calling. I tell people when I was in the eighth grade Mrs. Galluci, my English teacher, asked the class to please write what they would like to read on their tombstone. “She Made A Difference” was mine. And it came to me without even thinking about it. I mean, who would think about that in eighth grade? But it came just like that.

BG – In a recent Willamette Week interview they admitted they didn’t make you “Rogue of the Week” because you are dying. Are other people being nicer to you?

VK – God, I hope so.

BG – Do you think that most people would say you were a nice person who cared about this city more than 99 percent of the people who have lived here…or who have served in this office?

VK – You know when I made a decision to run (for mayor) I needed to know whether this was something that I really liked doing. And when I started walking door-to-door and meeting people and hearing their stories or hearing their problems I said, “My what a….how my life is going to be enriched by this work.” Yeah, there are cranks, but there are good, good people who nobody listened to and nobody would even pick up the phone and respond to them or write a letter. And I said if I’m gonna do this work, I’m gonna do it right and I’m gonna care. And I found myself. That was a very easy thing for me to do.

BG – Do you care if you get much credit for things that you thought about and moved forward when you were mayor?

VK – No. No. You know, we’re not very good about giving credit to anyone. (Laughs). I just want to make sure that I thought of things like the arts as well as the potholes or things like the parks, the Esplanade, the Chinese Classical Garden. That it was balanced, because a city has to have opportunities for citizens to have recreations of all kinds….bike paths, walking paths, trails.

BG – The voters of Portland are really liberal. More so, I think, than in the past. Why?

VK – It has been liberal and I think that the war in Iraq has prompted a lot more expression of that liberalism.

BG – What else is going on?

VK – You’re from San Francisco. I’m from New York. We get people from all over the country. You know, they think about it (moving to Portland). This young group, they really think about where they want to live. It’s not a game for them. Where are the schools decent? Where are there several universities? Where are interesting things going on? And you attract those kinds of people that are willing to take risks until they get a little older. Then they get a little more conservative. I’ve seen that too.

BG – Do you sense that you ran into more resistance—that in a down economy it’s much more difficult to secure the consent of the governed to do the things that you think are necessary?

VK – People are ready to jump and point fingers. The fact that the economy has faltered is your fault and your fault and your fault. They need to understand that we’re living in an international economy, a global economy, and there isn’t anything that Portland, Oregon did that caused the recession. That it was a national-scale recession for a variety of reasons. So you get blamed for all of it yet very few people know the true story of Columbia Sportswear and what really happened. Very few people really know all of the work that’s been going on month after month, year after year to secure the expansion of Freightliner, to secure the expansion of Wacker Siltronic. To get a little company to come and move here to relocate because they like downtown Portland. Very few people know all the work that’s going on, but they love to point fingers because it’s a hard reality to face that the economy is suffering. Thank goodness it’s beginning to turn around. I can sleep at night because when I became mayor in the ’90s we were booming and as I’ve said, I’ll take credit for the booming ’90s.

BG – Did you ever get the feeling that businesses were using the bad economy to get concessions from Portland by playing one city off another one?

VK – I’ve learned not to fight with them. I have fairly good relations with leaders of the business community. We, in fact, did try to lower the business income taxes and business license fees but we didn’t have the money. We made some choices that we’d rather fill the police officer vacant slots. When times are good you don’t hear much complaint from the business community. But the leaders of the business community who understand how city government operates, who understand the budget, clearly give us a little more slack than BrainstormNW magazine.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of Newstalk 860 KPAM Radio. He’s also BrainstormNW’s movie reviewer.

BrainstormNW - December 2004

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