Gretchen Kafoury, longtime Oregon political leader, dies at 72

Kafoury was a founder of Oregon NOW in 1970

Gretchen Kafoury on her last day at Portland City Council.

Gretchen Kafoury on her last day at Portland City Council.

By Kasia Hall | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian
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on March 13, 2015

Gretchen Kafoury, who championed affordable housing and women’s rights in an expansive political career that gave rise to a second generation, died Friday. She was 72.

Kafoury, whose career spanned from Portland City Council to the Oregon Legislature, had been politically active since the 1960s. She worked on Sen. Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and Wayne Morse’s U.S. Senate run in 1968.

She soon became a leading voice for women’s rights and helped launch the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1970. A year later, she was marching against the City Club of Portland, protesting its refusal to admit women, and co-founded the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus.

She became a candidate herself in 1977, winning the seat in the Oregon House of Representatives vacated by her then-husband Stephen Kafoury.

As a state representative, she worked for legislation to expand the role of nurses and to improve the quality of care for hospital patients. She also worked on programs to help victims of domestic and sexual violence and to establish credit rights and job flexibility for women. She served in the Legislature until 1982.

Three years later she was elected to the Multnomah County, where she worked to increase county funding for prenatal care for low-income women, established Portland’s first teen health clinic in Roosevelt High School and created primary prevention programs to help attack drug and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancy.

Her daughter Deborah Kafoury, who was elected to the county commission in 2008, is now its chairwoman.

In 1991, she was elected to Portland City Council where she served until 1998.

Colleagues remember her as someone who was drawn to serve the public and focused on building a city that worked for everybody.

“She was utterly full of life and energy and it was exciting to work with her because she was always focused on stuff that mattered,” said Erik Sten, Kafoury’s former chief of staff who later served alongside her on the City Council. “Despite being a very successful politician for a long time she didn’t really care about the politics.”

Instead, Sten said, Kafoury got excited when she saw families move into stable homes.

“There’s been a lot of good people on the city council,” he said. “But she’s been one of the ones that Portland was really lucky to have.”

Portland Mayor Charlier Hales said the city lost a leader and role model.

“She was tireless in her work with the National Organization for Women, the City of Portland, Multnomah County and the Oregon Legislature,” he said in a statement. “She has been a colleague, an ally, a partner – and always the conscience of our community.”

Other public officials turned to Twitter to express condolences and celebrate her life.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, wrote that Kafoury was champion of the poor and women’s rights, and an outstanding public servant.

Gov. Kate Brown said Kafoury truly understood what leadership meant.

“We will miss her humanity and authenticity,” she wrote.

After Kafoury retired from politics, she continued to push for affordable housing and served as a commissioner for the Housing Authority of Portland, which is now known as Home Forward. Just two weeks ago, Kafoury testified at a City Council meeting regarding Portland urban renewal areas.

She also taught at Portland State University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs until her retirement in 2008.

In October of 1998, Kafoury was awarded the mayor’s Human Rights Award. In 2001 she received the Spirit of Portland award in recognition of her service to the city.

Born in Walla Walla, Washington, Gretchen Kafoury graduated from Whitman College in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in music. In the mid-60s, she was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Iran. She then taught English as a second language at Grant High School in Northeast Portland and at Portland State University.

Survivors included her daughters Deborah Kafoury and Katharine Kafoury. 

— Kasia Hall

khall@oregonian.com
503-221-8346 @kasiahall

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