Vera Katz

August 3, 1933 – December 11, 2017

“I loved the legislature. I loved walking into the building and knowing that history is being made.”

Oregon State Capitol Foundation Oral History Project, 2016

Working for Bobby Kennedy

I came to Oregon about the time that he was either thinking of running for President or actually running for President. And I was so impressed with him that I decided this is something I can volunteer for and worked on his campaign almost full time. And when he was assassinated, we started the Kennedy Action Core, and my role is to go to the legislature and lobby for some of his causes, farm workers, migrants. And that’s how it all started.

First Legislative Campaign

Actually, it was fascinating, because I knew nothing, and it was basically grassroots, door to door.  Was important but it didn’t have the kind of stature that we see today because most of it was foot soldiers on the ground and on the phone, and that’s how it started. And I was good at it. I had Sally Landauer and Betty Barton, who were wonderful at it. And the feminist movement was erupting. And so, the fact that women were running was really an important element.

Extending Civil Rights Act to Include Gender & Sexual Orientation

The most important bill was my first bill, which was the extension of the Civil Rights Act to cover gender and sexual orientation. I had gay friends who worked on the campaign, and it was a civil rights issue and we realized that even as early as 1973 and it was important to include sexual orientation.

Interviewer: And do you remember some of the reactions to the bill?

A motion to delete the language is what I remember. Drop it, drop it.  We need to get the gender in. We will get back to sexual orientation.

Gender Discrimination in Public Places

We were determined that this was going to pass, and we developed a women’s caucus.  Norma Paulus, Nancy Fairley, Betty Roberts, strong women both on the House and the Senate. And Mary Burrows. And we worked through the bill, and it passed. I can’t tell you at what point at the Legislature whether it was toward the end or the beginning, but it passed, and we were very proud of it.

Learning How to Legislate

You kept your eyes open and your ears open. I mean, mentoring at that time was a new concept as well. And people didn’t really have time to sit down with you and mentor you. You had to ask questions. You had to clearly observe what was going on around you and understand that this was the learning of the legislature.

1973 Feminist Legislation

We introduced a whole stack of bills that would change the he to he/she or neutralize the language, so it was a male oriented introduced the bill. Wally Priestly finally passed it that would allow women to box and wrestle. And so that’s how far we went.

Election as Speaker of the House

I had some very smart women on my side, Darlene Hooley, others who were committed to getting me to become speaker because my opposition were the boys. See if I can remember some of them. Carl Hostika, Tom Troop, Wayne Fabis, the boys, good Democrats, smart Democrats. But one of them wanted to be speaker very badly. Didn’t anticipate that we were going to be fairly well organized. And one of the women said, I’ve got an idea. Nobody leaves the room until the speakership is decided. Nobody goes to the bathroom. It  just kind of hit me? I didn’t quite….ahhh,  now I understand.  Because in the bathroom, the deals would be cut. That’s how you learn the legislative process. And so we decided that that would be one of the rules. Nobody was going to leave. And it certainly helped because I know the boys wanted to leave and wanted to take breaks. There were no breaks, and it took 105 ballots. We started in the early afternoon and went through the night till about 9:30 in the morning. Can you imagine? The last thing that was boys wanted was to have a Speaker like me. 

Reaching Across the Aisle

I was realistic. I wanted to get things done. I didn’t want to just talk about it. You were elected to accomplish something. Now you can have a session where not much is done, but at least your responsibility was to work to make it happen. I knew how to count. I realized I needed a certain amount of votes to get anything done. And if they’re not in my caucus, in many cases, they weren’t, I had to go across the aisle.

Political Reflections

I loved the legislature. I truly loved it. I loved walking into the building and knowing that history is being made. I had to learn some Oregon in history. What did I know coming from New York? What did I care? But you find yourself. You better know and you better care. And it’s absolutely fascinating when you start rummaging through that information.