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‘Once in a generation public official’: Beloved city commissioner Nick Fish left his mark on Portland

Fish said, “I have always believed that government can be society’s greatest force for good, and that together we can do amazing things.”

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Commissioner Nick Fish passed away at his home after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 61. The trusted public servant had been on Portland's City Council since 2008.

“In my 40 years of watching city council, I’ve never seen someone whose been quite as effective a council member… He’s been a policy leader,” political analyst Len Bergstein said.

During his 11-year tenure as a commissioner, Fish was assigned to lead several bureaus including Fire & Rescue, Housing, Parks & Recreation, and Water and Environmental Services.

He was elected to city council in a special election in 2008. He ran on a platform of unifying the city’s housing programs and functions under one roof, the City of Portland said. As a result, the Portland Housing Bureau was created. 

He most recently won re-election in 2018. He was overseeing Portland Parks & Recreation and the Bureau of Environmental Services. 

“I think Nick has always thought that public service is something very special. It’s kind of been a part of his family life for a long time and as soon as he came to Portland you knew he was going to be marked for greatness,” Bergstein said.

RELATED: Portland Commissioner Nick Fish dies after two-year cancer battle

In a message he wrote to the community earlier this week announcing his resignation, Fish said, “I have always believed that government can be society’s greatest force for good, and that together we can do amazing things.”

And amazing things he did.

In the same letter, Fish wrote of his time in office and all that he was able to accomplish including supporting affordable housing and working to end homelessness. 

During Fish’s time with the Housing Bureau he created partnerships at the county and state level “to align our dollars and priorities.” He cited Bud Clark Commons, Gray’s Landing, and Riverplace Parcel as testament to that commitment.

Fish noted in the letter that he is gratified the city is ahead of schedule in adding 2,000 new units of supportive housing and was hopeful that the region would pass a new measure to fund services that allow people to remain successfully housed.

Other accomplishments in his tenure included curbing water rate increases, helping clean up the Willamette River Superfund site, making Portland parks more accessible and inclusive and working to change the model in which Parks is funded.

He wrote that it was his “fervent hope” the community would build a new memorial to fallen firefighters and that the city would continue its care and stewardship of the environment.

Nick Fish was born in New York on September 30, 1958, and grew up in a rural Hudson River town. His mother was a nurse and his father served in Congress.

He graduated from Harvard in 1981 and began working as a legislative assistant for Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank. He told the Democratic Party of Oregon that Frank fueled his passion for public service and inspired him to become a civil rights lawyer.

He got his law degree from Northwestern University in 1986.

Fish came to Portland in the mid-90s when his wife, Patricia, began teaching at Portland State University. He told the Democratic Party of Oregon, “We didn’t know many people, but Portland welcomed us with open arms.”

During his 20-year law career before he became a public official, he said he was able to win an anti-discrimination case protecting HIV-positive patients, work with a community coalition to save the Portland Women’s Crisis Line and help nonprofits and small businesses succeed.

Fish was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2017. In an interview with Laural Porter, he said, "Live everyday like its your last. When I was young, my mother died in a car accident when I was very young. It threw my world upside down. And I think because of that, I’ve never taken anything for granted."

Fish enjoyed watching Portland’s soccer teams, roaming through bookstores and art galleries, listening to jazz and spending time with his wife and two children, Maria and Chapin.

RELATED: 'Nick was taken too early': Portland, Oregon leaders honor accomplished commissioner Nick Fish