Gretchen Miller Kafoury (b 1942, died 2015) has served on the Housing Authority of Portland’s Board of Commissioners, since 2007.
After leaving the Portland City Council, Kafoury joined the faculty of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. She is a “founding mother” of the New Leadership Oregon Board and continues to be active training the next generation of Oregon women politicians.
At Kafoury’s confirmation hearing before the Portland City Council, City Commissioner Erik Sten called her “the godmother of affordable housing” in Oregon. Kafoury spent 20 years in elected office, serving in the Oregon legislature (1977-1983), on the Multnomah County Commission (1985-1990), and on the Portland City Council (1991-1998). She championed social and economic justice and left her mark not only on affordable housing but on homeless programs and domestic violence prevention.
She is the mother of Deborah Kafoury.
Among the first of a generation of women activists in Portland politics, Kafoury’s accomplishments are visible from the Kafoury Commons, a subsidized apartment building in downtown Portland, to the city’s most vibrant organizations.
Born and raised in Walla Walla, Washington, Kafoury graduated from Whitman College and joined the Peace Corps, serving in Iran. The turbulence of the 1960s and her two years in Iran impassioned an activism in her that never ebbed.
Long before working on her own election campaigns, Kafoury took on everything from getting women membership in the City Club of Portland to founding an Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women. Unwilling to tackle these campaigns alone, she brought together a group of women friends to form a potential picket line called the Wednesday Winos. Eventually changing their name to “Politically Oriented Women”, the group supported each other through political crusades and their own personal crises.
During the 1970’s, Kafoury co-founded the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus, joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and opened a bottle-recycling depot in her garage. A project to distribute pamphlets on birth control to the general public brought her the distinction of being one of the first paid lobbyists for women’s rights in the United States. She helped lead a public protest against men-only grills at the downtown Lipman’s and Meier and Frank stores. In her retirement speech to the City Club of Portland, Kafoury reminisced back to 1973. When she and other women were picketing in front of the Benson Hotel as guests started arriving for the all-male City Club’s meeting, Kafoury was “director of security.” “Nothing has ever been as fun as picketing the City Club 25 years ago when I got to wear a helmet and march around the Benson,” Kafoury mused.
Kafoury graduated from Whitman College, in 1963, with a BA in Music. Politics and family have distracted the piano major from the Steinway that sits in her condo, but she “hopes to get back to it.” After serving in the Peace Corps, Kafoury came to Portland where she taught English as a Second Language until 1971. With two small children, she managed to work part time during the early 70s, keeping herself busy with volunteer political work, lobbying and two years with the Civil Rights Division.
From 1977 to 1982 she represented east Portland at the Oregon Legislature. In 1985 she began a six-year tenure as a Multnomah County Commissioner, followed by election to the Portland City Council in 1991. She served as a City Commissioner until 1998. In all three offices, her priorities centered on human services and civil rights issues.
Kafoury’s reputation grew during her seven years as Portland City Commissioner. Citizens and colleagues remember her as a strong political figure and a leader on housing issues. She took on Portland’s powerful landlords and forced the other commissioners to take a stand on public housing and tenants rights. She woke up a community that, until then, had little knowledge of or interest in a subject that affected the quality of life in their hometown.
Patrick Donaldson, then staff director of the Citizens Crime Commission, recalls an incident that is typical of Kafoury’s style. After a shouting disagreement, as Donaldson got up to leave, Kafoury reached out to pat him on his shoulder– not in apology but as outreach to a man who had been an ally in the past and who would be again. “That was a very human thing,” he says, “putting her hand on my shoulder. It’s not a political technique; it’s an emotion.” “Even when Kafoury can’t offer political agreement, she can offer personal warmth.” .
In October of 1998, Kafoury was awarded the mayor’s Human Rights Award “as a champion of the voices of those less fortunate and for those who have had their rights placed in jeopardy.” In 2001 she received the Spirit of Portland award in recognition of her service to the city.
After retiring from public office, Kafoury earned her Masters in Public Administration at Portland State University, graduating in 2000. She currently teaches classes in community development and is the Internship Coordinator for Portland State’s College of Urban and Public Affairs.
She returned to Iran in 2002. After 36 years away, her love for the country and her ability to speak Farsi were still powerful. She credits her life in Iran for two years, great parents and an inquisitive mind as the key ingredients in molding her life in politics.
She continues to be “outraged about the war(s) and the assaults on the poor.” “Many of the issues that I thought were ‘resolved’ twenty and thirty years ago are right back in our face,” she says, and advises others “to keep passionate and be persistent.”
"Gay Rights" advocate
In 1973, Oregon gay activists tried for the first time to obtain statewide civil rights protection. According to George Nicola, "we would have had no idea how to proceed without the help of Gretchen Kafoury.
Nicola first met Gretchen through a Reed College student who was boarding with the parents of Gretchen’s husband at that time, Steve Kafoury. Steve Kafoury had just been elected to his first term in the Oregon House of Representatives. Gretchen was the state legislative lobbyist for a coalition of Oregon feminist organizations. She took Nicola to the Capitol where first term Representative Vera Katz allowed him to work out of her office.
The Kafourys and Katz showed me how to propose and lobby for the first Oregon statewide bill that would prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment and housing. They garnered 17 sponsors and the bill failed in the House by only two votes short of a majority. "But it was a major milestone in Oregon support for gay equality."
In 1977, Gretchen Kafoury returned to Salem, this time as an elected member of the House of Representative. She became a sponsor of a new bill to ban sexual orientation discrimination. Gretchen allowed the gay lobbyist of that time to use her office as a base.
In 1985, Gretchen was elected Multnomah County Commissioner. There she successfully pushed for a resolution that banned sexual orientation discrimination in county employment.
In 1974, before Gretchen Kafoury held public office, the Portland City Council passed a resolution banning discrimination in city employment. In 1990, she was elected to the Portland City Council. The following year, she helped pass an ordinance that banned sexual orientation discrimination by all employers doing business in the city, as well as in housing and public accommodations.
Just before leaving the City Council in 1998, Kafoury sponsored an ordinance which urged "appropriate strategies for implementing anti-discrimination . . . for transgendered and transsexuals within the City Workforce."
At the the Fifth Annual Convention of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee held in Philadelphia May 22-25, 1981, gay activist Harry Britt was elected Vice Chair, as were Trudy Robideau, Marjorie Phyfe and Rosemary Ruether. Others elected included Mike Rivas, Chair of DSOC's Hispanic Commission and William Winpisinger, head of the Machinists Union.,
Among the elected officials who "are socialists," Harrington named Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Cal), Hon. Gretchen Kafoury of Oregon, Ruth Messinger, of New York, Maryann Mahaffey of Detroit and Harry Britt of San Francisco.
1982 Portland Democratic Socialists of America Steering Committee members , Beverly Stein, Bill Thomas, Nancy Becker, Judi Watts, Pat Hayes, Rhys Scholes, Natasha Beck, Fred Heutte, Gretchen Kafoury
Community Forum: Local Impact of a War on Iraq
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten's office sponsored a community forum on January 5th on the Local Impact of an Iraq War. The event was held Sunday , January 5 at First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson. This event is also sponsored by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, MerciCorps, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
- Gretchen Kafoury spoke on the local and international economic and social impacts of an American war on Iraq.
- Katherine Thomason, MD shared more about estimated casualties of the war.
- Wes Taylor, Methodist clergyman and President of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon talked about alternative approaches to international conflict.
- Steve Claybourne of MerciCorps on difficulties of providing aid during war.
- Earl Blumenauer talked about preemptive war as a departure from past US policy.
The Women’s Investment Network Political Action Committee, or WIN-PAC, was founded in 1987. For more than 20 years, WIN-PAC has raised tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle to help pro-choice Democratic women running for the Oregon Legislature.
The founding “mothers” of WINPAC were Betty Roberts (former legislator and first women to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court), Jewel Lansing (former auditor for Portland and Multnomah County), Gretchen Kafoury (former legislator and city and county commissioner), Darlene Hooley (former county commissioner, legislator and Congresswoman), Maureen Leonard (then Oregon Supreme Court clerk), and Patricia McCaig (then assistant to Oregon Secretary of State Barbara Roberts).
Founded two years after EMILY’s List, WIN-PAC endorsed its first candidates for office in 1988. WINPAC was originally non-partisan, but changed its endorsement criteria in 1994 to support only Democratic women candidates. WIN=PAC contributes dollars directly to pro-choice, Democratic women legislative candidates and collects checks made out directly to their campaigns (known as “bundling” in the political fundraising world).
- Successful WIN-PAC candidates have transformed the public policy debate in Oregon.
Open Letter to Obama on Iran
In 2008 Gretchen Kafoury, Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University, Portland, OR signed an online petition “A Open Letter to Barack Obama on Iran”.
- HAP press release, Dec. 5, 2007
- Women city Builders profile, accessed Feb. 28, 2011
- Gretchen Kafoury, longtime Oregon political leader, dies at 72By Kasia Hall | The Oregonian/OregonLive on March 13, 2015
- Women city Builders profile, accessed Feb. 28, 2011
- Women city Builders profile, accessed Feb. 28, 2011
- HEARTS AND VOICES: GRETCHEN MILLER KAFOURY, Personal Recollections of Oregon Gay History, By George T. Nicola, October 20, 2010
- NAM Discussion Bulletin no 35, Spring 1981 page 38
- Peoples Daily World, June 11, 1981, DSOC meet urges butter, not guns, page 5 and 18
- [Portland DSA report to National DSA July, 1982]
- Portland AIMC, Community Forum: Local Impact of a War on Iraq, 02.Jan.2003
- WIN-PAC, Our History, accessed June 28, 2010
- Open Letter to Obama on Iran