Vera Katz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a former Brooklynite who became a feminist force in Oregon and a three-term mayor of its largest city, Portland, as it grew from an unremarkable port and timber town into a liberal bastion of visionary urban planning, died on Monday at her home in Southwest Portland. She was 84.
The cause was complications of kidney disease and leukemia, her son, Jesse, said. She successfully underwent treatment years earlier for two other forms of cancer.
Inspired by Cesar Chavez, the migrant farmworkers’ leader, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, Ms. Katz was in her mid-30s when she embarked on a political career, graduating from licking envelopes during Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign to become the first woman elected speaker, or presiding officer, of Oregon’s House of Representatives.
She served three terms as speaker, an Oregon record, from 1985 to 1990. At the time, she was one of only two women in the country holding that post.
First elected to the State Legislature in 1972, Ms. Katz advocated for gun control and rights for women, gay people and migrant workers before those causes gained wider approval. She also oversaw an overhaul of Oregon’s school system.
As mayor from 1993 to 2005, she presided over Portland’s metamorphosis into a pedestrian-friendly city that embraced mass transit, environmentalism and other facets of progressive urban planning and that was regularly ranked among the nation’s most livable metropolitan areas.
Its official slogan, “The City That Works,” was complemented by an equally popular one that emerged as an informal mandate for what blossomed into Oregon’s hipster haven: “Keep Portland Weird.” (That sensibility was later embraced in the comedy sketch television series “Portlandia.”)
Her family moved there in 1964, but Ms. Katz never outgrew her Brooklyn roots. She missed egg creams and took a bus to work. She didn’t drive because she couldn’t — she twice flunked driving tests, failing to master the required maneuvering.
In his memoir “The Opposite Field” (2009), her son, Jesse, wrote: “On her final try, the instructor admonished her, a line she delights in repeating: ‘Missus Katz, you don’t exude confidence’ — a judgment belied by the brassy reputation she developed as a diminutive (five feet tall) but indomitable elected official.
“She had no hobbies,” he continued, “no diversions or indulgences to dull her focus or, it might be said, to soften her brio.”
Ms. Katz practiced, largely successfully, what she described as “feminization of power” — achieving her goals by consensus instead of confrontation.
She was born Vera Pistrak on Aug. 3, 1933, in Düsseldorf, Germany, to Jewish parents who had been Mensheviks, socialists opposed to Bolshevism, and had fled Russia after the revolution of 1917.
Her father, Lazar, was a political operative and writer who later worked for the United States Information Agency; in 1960 he published a biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. Her mother, Raissa Goodman, supported the family at first by making handbags in sweatshops; she became a translator for the Voice of America.
Two months after Vera was born, with Hitler already installed as Germany’s chancellor, she escaped to Paris with her parents and older sister.
When she was 7, after the Nazis invaded France, the family crossed the Pyrenees by foot into Spain and boarded a Greek steamship for the United States. There, when she was 12, her father would leave the family.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Vera attended Julia Richman High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Brooklyn College in 1955. She also studied dance under Martha Graham.
She married an artist, Mel Katz, and moved west with their son, settling in Portland in 1964. They divorced in 1985. In addition to her son, a writer and editor, she is survived by a grandson.
In 1968, Jesse Katz recalled, “Mom was 34 with a sociology degree from Brooklyn College that was going to waste and genes that were programmed, long ago and far away, for political action.”
Her first formal foray was the Kennedy campaign.
As Portland mayor, she helped revitalize the Pearl District and the South Waterfront neighborhood and was instrumental in the construction of the Lan Su Chinese Garden and the Eastbank Esplanade and in the establishment of the Portland streetcar system.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, she led a good-will delegation of Portlanders to New York.
That same year, she also courted controversy by unconventionally validating her adopted city’s liberal identity: The Portland police refused to cooperate with federal investigators who sought to interview students from the Middle East, and the municipal government provided land for a tent city for the homeless.
“They were both late bloomers, Mom and Portland, and she was determined that her investment live on,” Jesse Katz wrote. “ ‘I was the mother,’ she told me. ‘This was my child.’ ”
He also quoted Ms. Katz’s recollection of her political epiphany as a teenager:
“ ‘When I was in the eighth grade in Miss Gallucci’s English class, we were told to write what we wanted to have put on our tombstones, and mine was, “She made a difference,” ’ Mom explained. ‘I didn’t want to be in a grave with a lie written on it.’ ”