The Chief


The tiny round table was already overloaded with 6 empty beer bottles.  She had waved away the offer of glasses.  We met at the little bar beneath the office tower where I was currently robbing an insurance company as a consultant.  I beat her there.  She peddled up on her bike, shook my hand and hung her helmet from the back of the spindly chair. 

“Hi Jim, I’m Betsy,” she said, “IPAs?”

I first heard about Betsy as one of the “big 4” on Nick Fish’s first, heartbreaking run for Portland City Council.  As a rookie and one of the “big 3” on Nick’s later 2008 campaign, I was looking for help wherever I could get it.  But I quickly learned that the loss the first time around had been so surprising and devastating that, while supportive, the former crew was going to sit this one out.  

After winning his election, Nick had chosen to bring in more experienced people for his City Hall staff.  I was crushed not to be there, but quickly used my old IT connections to land a gig and refill the bank account.  Truth was, I hated the work but cashed the checks anyhow.

By all accounts, Nick’s first year as a commissioner was chaotic.  He has the scary ability to go at the same speed in 10 different directions at the same time and the first team simply couldn’t contain or harness all that boundless energy.  A second version of his team was forming and Betsy would lead it as Chief of Staff.

I was pretty nervous waiting for Betsy.  Not knowing the protocol I held off ordering a drink.  When I left my long IT career, it was my intent to fulfill two lifelong dreams.  First, be on the inside of a winning political campaign, and second, be the invisible guy in the back of the room, part of a team governing.  Sitting there on a lovely night, I knew this was pretty much my last shot to fulfill my little dream.

The first beer calmed me.  I told the already tiresome to me tale of why I had abandoned a 24 year career to change my life.  She told me stories from the first Fish campaign and about her jobs at the City.  We both shared about our obsessive love for our dogs.  That night, Betsy was funny, in a curiously restrained way.  Her laugh could boom but then she sort of caught it in her throat lest it go too far.  Her face turned deep red when she shared insider stories about the first Fish campaign or when what she was saying anything the least bit conspiratorial.  No poker player she.  But’s here’s the thing, one beer in, we were already a team.  What we were doing wasn’t an interview at all.  We were just two kind of nerds hanging out, telling tales.

Finally, as the 4th round arrived and I was getting a little tipsy, I said, “So…Betsy…what are we doing here?”

Her laugh boomed and she turned red again.

“Oh.  Oh, I forgot to ask you.  Do you want to come to City Hall with me and work for Nick?”

I laughed with her.

“I am having a good time here but I was hoping that was the point.  Of course!” I said as an electric shot went though my body and I fought to contain a crack in my voice.  She offered 1/3 of the salary I had made in my old job and I was delighted.

In my work life, I have had bosses, peers and teams working for me.  But my 2 years with Betsy in City Hall was different.  In the political world, almost all relationships are transactional.  I quickly got annoyed by how often the word “friend” gets tossed about and how little it actually means.  When, after two years, Betsy moved on to anther job at the city, I thought about what our work together had been.  While I hesitated to say it out loud because it sounded so strange, I arrived at the conclusion that ours was the most intimate working relationship I have ever had.

What was immediately clear was that Betsy (I called her Bets) and I shared an important skill and a preference.  We were both systems people, her from her city work and me from decades in a big corporation.  We both could look at a tangled mess of bureaucracy and policy then, mostly in our heads, deconstruct it in ways that would help our boss the commissioner who, for all his considerable skills, had no experience or understanding of big systems.  Behind closed doors, back and forth in each other’s offices, we strategized and schemed, always focused on how to help our boss be better at his job.  

The preference was an agreement that mornings sucked.  Her with her coffee, me with my tea, we merely tolerated all that horrible morning energy around us until our brains caught up with our bodies.  But on the backend of the day, we both reveled in the quiet hours when everyone else was gone and it was just the two of us.  Our conversations slowed down, mixing both the personal and and professional. Still, no matter how long I stayed, she was still at her desk when I waved goodbye.

We had great fun trying to provide a semblance of order to the team.  Gradually, sometimes subversively, we succeeded.  Whether in shifting the organization or creating a policy initiative, there was always the moment when we had to pitch the idea to Nick.  Back behind a closed door again, almost always in my office as it didn’t adjoin the Commissioner’s, we set up our tag team.  I am a natural antagonist, so often made the pitch followed quickly by Betsy as the deeply experienced, wise insider.  When my change agent routine began to wear thin with Nick, we would switch roles.  Nick mostly knew he was being played but I think he gave us more space to push hard because both Betsy and I had been in the trenches for his campaigns.  In politics, shared scars count for something.

I was in my happy place.  Almost every morning as I walked into the building, I looked up at the little brass sign that said City Hall and smiled.  But after two years, Betsy, mission accomplished, was ready to disconnect from the endless demands of being our Chief of Staff.  For a parting gift, I gave her an actual travel case for her beloved iPad to replace the ratty sack she used.  Then, I did something that I knew was hard for her to take those days. 

I said, “OK, now you are just going to have to endure this.”

I gave her a hug.

Betsy returned to her most natural environment, the complex wheels and cogs of the actual city government.  In meetings, I have never seen anyone take notes with such fervor.  And after, she would turn her almost transcription into action.  If you have the right eyes, it is impossible to live in Portland without seeing something Betsy made.  She is everywhere around us.  

Betsy lived to travel.  She had her office walls remade as giant cork boards where she stuck hundreds of pictures of the places she visited.  The entire time I knew her there was never a moment were she was not planning the next trip.  Even when the cancer appeared, she didn’t let up, arranging chemo in Mexico, crossing North Africa off her itinerary list.  

And then there was her blog about her cancer.  I read the long, detailed posts with a sense of awe and wonder.  She applied her remarkable eye for detail to every nuance of her body, medical care and the loving people around her.  I want to say the writing was courageous but that isn’t it.  It was as if she was using all of her consider powers of observation and organization in an attempt to write the cancer into submission.  

Two weeks ago today there was a retirement celebration in City Hall for Betsy.  She had taken a year-long leave of absence but finally knew she had to retire.  I still have a little trouble walking into City Hall these days.  But I needed to be there.  I slipped in early and just as she was getting settled snuck up front said, “Hi Boss,” and gave he a hug.  She didn’t smile, just kept moving forward.  It was clear that her being there was both an act of will and love.  The speeches were lovely and there was a concerted attempt to bring joy to the tall atrium.  Still, I was struck that what I was seeing was not unlike a memorial service with the person being remembered in the room.  I don’t think that as so much morbid as remarkable.  Few people get to have that moment.  Her determination, pure Betsy, had put her in that room.

At the end, Betsy took the microphone.  Seated, clearly exhausted, the medication robbing her of continuity of thought, she made it clear to all us that this was a “disability retirement.”  She did not want to go.  She talked about time, the time she had, which she haltingly measured in years “one…two or three.”  But knowing Betsy, she wasn’t fooling herself at all.  I think she said that for all of us.  Then, in one line, she was completely there for us to see.  She looked across the room at her longtime partner David.

“He may be an asshole…but he’s my asshole.”

We laughed.  That was Betsy expressing love.

As I have grown older and lost people in my life, I keep looking for solace, finding it occasionally.  Last night, as I read the message from her sister that I knew was coming, I once again fell upon the Jewish blessing: May her memory be a blessing.

Bets, I am blessed.

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