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A Woman of Our Times

By David Broder
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page B07

PORTLAND, Ore. -- "Feisty" is the word I have used in two previous columns about Vera Katz -- the first in 1985, when she had just become the second woman in U.S. history elected as speaker of a state house of representatives, and the second in 1998, when I wrote about her ambitious plans as mayor of Portland to remake her city's downtown and waterfront.

Feisty is what she remains as she winds up her 12 years as mayor this week and closes three decades of public service that mark her as one of the pioneers and pacesetters for the women's movement, education reform, health care and urban planning.

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When I saw her, during a brief visit earlier this month, deliver her final "state of the city" address to the Portland City Club, she was the same tiny figure, bright-eyed, chin out, I had met almost 40 years ago, when she was a volunteer in Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

She's 71 now, locked in a four-year battle with a persistent form of cancer, but she has yielded nothing to time or disease.

She used the occasion to throw out fresh challenges to her successor and to her constituents, turning what could have been a sentimental and even tearful occasion into a political learning experience for the civic leaders who filled the hotel ballroom and the larger audience of Portlanders who were later to read or see her speech.

As always, her main concern was the schools. In her 20 years in the legislature, she had written and gotten passed the measure that set standards for education in Oregon, later imitated and adopted by scores of governors, including George W. Bush. As mayor, she had intervened more than once to head off teacher strikes and other crises, and in the recent Oregon budget crunch, she persuaded Portland-area voters to tax themselves more heavily to avoid the cuts in the school calendar taking place elsewhere in the state.

Virtually her final words this day were a plea to Portland's business leaders to "show the same passion for the schools you show for limiting taxes."

The biggest single change -- and by all odds the most positive -- I have witnessed in American politics has been the emergence of strong women such as Katz in leadership positions. Each of them has her own story of obstacles overcome and her own set of experiences from which she drew the strength needed to break the mold.

Katz was a refugee, born in Germany, fleeing the Nazis as a child, then walking with her family away from Nazi-occupied France through the Pyrenees to Spain, then going on to Portugal and, finally, New York.

As a young mother in Portland, she was inspired by the Kennedy campaign of 1968 and, after his murder, remained active on behalf of migrant workers and other liberal causes. She was elected to the legislature in 1972, part of a sizable group of women, Democrats and Republicans alike, determined to alter the cozy "good old boy" atmosphere in Salem. Often working across party lines, they helped set the state on a progressive course by demonstrating they could count votes and, in Katz's case, deal with the intricacies of state budgets as well.

In 1985, when she set her cap on becoming speaker, Oregon, like every state but North Dakota, had never seen a woman in that leadership role. It took her 101 ballots to prevail in a contest with two male legislators. But she served as speaker for six years, until Republicans won control. During that time, the legislature passed the nationally influential Oregon Health Plan and many pieces of social legislation.

As mayor, Katz has had the usual array of problems -- police, schools, transportation, you name it. Some of her dreams were never realized. She wanted to put a concrete lid over a sunken four-mile stretch of Interstate 405, six lanes of traffic slashing through the heart of the city. The American Society of Landscape Architects offered a plan for parks, apartments, office towers and civic buildings on the new surface. But it never came to pass.

On the other hand, in that 1998 visit, she showed me a factory and warehouse strip along the shoreline of the Willamette River that could be -- she hoped -- cleared and converted into a glorious green riverfront park. And this year the completed Eastbank Esplanade was named in her honor.

Her imprint on her adopted city is permanent. And she is herself an important reminder of what this country has gained by opening its doors to immigrants, by recognizing the talents of women -- and as this proud product of Brooklyn College would insist -- by investing in public education.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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