Vera Katz, mayor of Portland from 1993 to 2005, has passed away at 84. She began life fleeing from the Nazis, and became one of the most distinctive and effective characters in Oregon politics. I disagreed with her sometimes but can’t forget the way she could bring out the best in people. Her 12 years as mayor meant that a whole generation came of age knowing no other leader.
Our oldest free weekly, Willamette Week, called her “Portland’s last successful mayor,” which seems a little nasty to me. The three men who followed her all served just one term, opting not to run for re-election, so I suppose you can say that if you mean sheer longevity in office.
But of course, the job has also gotten harder. Portland is an angrier place than it was in her time. News media is more diverse, which is great, but can also be less constructive. More of the population feels cornered and desperate, due to a greater economic cruelty in the culture that is beyond city government’s power to heal. The kind of patience and shared effort that Katz could inspire may not be possible now.
Portland’s mayor is legally a weak position, largely a role of chairing the City Council and assigning fellow councilors to supervise different parts of city government. In my experience, the average citizen has wildly exaggerated expectations for what a Portland mayor can actually do.
In this context, great mayors have succeeded by managing the council, creating space for everyone to excel while steering people toward a common purpose. But this only happens if there’s an electorate that really wants to reward that kind of co-operation.
I wonder if we’ll notice the moment when the job of Mayor of Portland — and similar weak-mayor positions in other cities — has gone from difficult to impossible. When a job is impossible, you won’t find competent people who want to do it, and that’s not good for any of the causes you care about.