On the second day of this new year, Portland lost one of its greatest community leaders. We are all still mourning the passing of Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, who lost his long battle with cancer on January 2.
Commissioner Fish’s passing was a tremendous loss for our city. We felt the impact immediately.
For more than a decade, Nick was someone Portland relied on to serve as the center, and many-times conscious, voice of our city’s leaders. He advised four mayors, helped steer the city through controversial issues, and could always be called upon to take on the toughest bureau assignments. He set the standard for what it means to be an elected official and truly serve the community.
Nick seemed just as excited about what he had on his agenda the last month of his life, as he did the first month he was in office.
Upon his passing, voices from across the city, state and political spectrum spoke out in praise of the Nick’s leadership, unmatched dedication to service, and an unwavering commitment to collaboration. Many people shared personal stories of actions he took behind the scenes for which he explicitly asked for no credit.
What was most remarkable about the respect and admiration expressed for Nick, was how consistent it was from all corners of our city, region and state. From Mayor Wheeler to Governor Brown, and community activists shared stories of praise for Nick’s commitment to bring people from different perspectives together to try and develop shared solutions. He sought common ground for the greater good.
In follow-up conversations I’ve had with many folks I have heard a worry that, in a time when it is needed the most, we are losing something with Nick that we may not get back.
We live in a time when political debates play out on social media like boxing matches, full of callouts and personal attacks. The most extreme ideological voices seem more dominant than ever. Compromise and collaboration are attacked as a weakness rather than a virtue. Yet this very style of leadership is what we loved and valued most about Commissioner Fish. He himself expressed this in his final letter to the community –
As a member of the Council, I have insisted that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, and I have focused on partnership, collaboration, and shared success. Across the country, the last decade has seen a stark decline in civility. Portland has not been immune to the national weakening of civil discourse. We can rise to this occasion and embrace inclusivity, sustainability, and shared prosperity for all. We must unite around these values and make them real through collective effort. City Council can do its part by fostering diverse rather than divergent priorities. It is our obligation to find the common ground in order to advance the common good. I have seen the power of partnership, and I trust our community’s leaders to see that the people of Portland deserve our best.
Nick’s commitment to compromise and collaboration was so strong that sometimes he would be your best friend, and sometimes he could be a thorn in your side. But at the end of the day, we followed his lead because he always held the high ground and remained committed to doing what was right instead of what was easy.
As the chair of the Portland Business Alliance, I have challenged our organization from top to bottom, board of directors, staff and members to strive to live up to this standard that Nick so tirelessly modeled.
We must ensure that building bridges, an unwavering commitment to service, and a willingness to work with everyone in our community are built into everything we do. We must always be willing to have hard conversations, seek out common ground, and help develop policy solutions that seek common good and set it as a top priority.
In what promises to be a hard-fought election year, we must also ask our current and future elected leaders to live up this standard.
As a community, we must challenge ourselves to evaluate candidates based on how they will lead as much as their specific policy positions. If we are to solve the major challenges facing our city – homelessness, rising housing costs, traffic congestion, and more – we desperately need leaders who will bring us together rather than divide us for their own political purposes.
Commissioner Fish set the standard. It’s up to us to live up to his example.
Vanessa Sturgeon is chair of the Portland Business Alliance board of directors and is president and CEO of TMT Development.