Nick Fish Benjamin Brink for Portland Parks and Recreation

The news of Commissioner Nick Fish’s abrupt death on January 2 came as a gut punch to Portland. The community response to Fish’s passing showed just how valued he’d been in his adopted city, with messages of gratitude and grief coming from affordable housing advocates, civil rights lawyers, homeless groups, environmental activists, law enforcement officials, and everyone from lifelong Portlanders to immigrants—even from strangers who had once sat before him in City Hall and felt heard.

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His departure is also a loss to Portland newsrooms.

Generally, politicians and journalists are equally wary of each other. That’s why, as a new City Hall reporter in Portland, I was skeptical of Fish’s immediate eagerness to introduce himself and get to know me.

I had my first meeting with Fish a week after I started this job, in March 2018. Wearing a colorful floral tie and clutching an oversized mug labeled “FUCK CANCER,” Fish flipped through past achievements in his decade at City Hall and pointed to a few goals on the horizon (he was particularly delighted with a plan to fuel city vehicles with human poop). He interrupted himself halfway through the conversation. “Enough about me,” he said. “What are you interested in writing about?”

I didn’t buy it. I was convinced Fish’s unguarded optimism and supposed curiosity in my own career had to be a ploy to butter up a naïve reporter for positive coverage, especially considering it was an election year.

But Fish wasn’t interested in winning me over. As weeks turned into months, I learned this was how he treated everyone in Portland media—with a genuine sense of curiosity and respect. He wanted to see us succeed.

Here’s how Fish’s chief of staff Sonia Schmanski puts it, in broader terms: “What he wanted was everyone always to remember that they could be better than they imagined.”

Fish cared about the integrity of a free press and prodded reporters to hold him accountable. He’d call to report a misplaced comma in a news story, pitch me stories on council items I’d otherwise skip over, and send me text messages (signed “Nick”) thanking me for stories critical of his work.

And his passion for Portland made reporting fun. His council comments added texture and nuance to otherwise binary debates. His unexpected but well-reasoned decisions brought a ripple of excitement to mundane votes. And his off-the-record rants about government logjams inspired investigations.

I certainly wasn’t the only reporter with this experience—dozens of longtime City Hall reporters have their own anecdotes about Fish’s drive to build a sincere, trusting relationship with the press, and, by extension, his constituents. But the fact that Fish was still invested in new reporters after spending a decade on council—not jaded by the constant stream of new reporters asking him clunky questions about a city government he knew front and back—meant something.

Once, after noticing a Mercury newspaper box covered with graffiti, Fish called my cell phone. “I hate to see our city’s esteemed press treated that way,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.

In the midst of a national cultural movement driven by our country’s top politician to discredit and devalue the free press, Fish used his shrinking energy reserves to lift up Portland’s scrappy news industry. He knew the limitations of overworked newsrooms, and he didn’t expect more than we could give. But, just as he believed in the sanctity of city government, he expected reporters to respect the sanctity of a free press.

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Many public figures build a wall between themselves and the media—some for understandable reasons (I see you, Meghan Markle) and others out of fear of being seen as an imperfect human being who could lose their job.

Fish, though, put the public before his own ego—and, perhaps, his own health—by allowing his imperfections and decisions to inspire healthy debate and strengthen public trust in independent journalism. He wanted us to be better than we imagined. 

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