Two months ago, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson announced he would no longer be doing a central part of his job.
While undergoing treatment for what he's called a small, cancerous brain tumor, Richardson revealed on Oct. 15 that he planned to stop attending meetings of the Oregon State Land Board. A deputy would attend in his place, he said, voting alongside Gov. Kate Brown and state Treasurer Tobias Read on matters concerning state-owned land.
The decision didn’t fly.
After receiving legal advice from the Oregon Department of Justice, Richardson walked back the change on Dec. 17. When the Land Board met the following day, he participated.
The change was minor, but in a Capitol that for months has speculated on how cancer might be affecting Richardson’s abilities, his reluctance to attend the Land Board meetings is notable.
It also raises a delicate question: How should elected officials facing serious health challenges balance their right to privacy with being candid with a public that has a stake in their success?
Often, Oregon elected officials who’ve had to answer that question have arrived at different conclusions than Richardson, who has chosen to keep details of his diagnosis and treatment under wraps.
“Your decision about your condition is your business,” said former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, speaking generally and not specifically about Richardson. “But the public clearly has a right to know that you are performing the job of secretary of state effectively.”
Secretary of state is one of the highest positions in Oregon government. It's first in the line of succession if the governor unexpectedly leaves office — Kate Brown became governor that way when John Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 — and oversees elections, audits, archives and registering businesses. It's also one of three elected positions to sit on the State Land Board, which takes up matters both mundane and hugely consequential.
While carrying out those duties as secretary, Bradbury was up front about his long-term battle with multiple sclerosis. On the campaign trail, for instance, he'd make light of the Segway scooter he used to compensate for loss of leg function. He says the condition didn't stop him from doing the job.
“I confess that I never had a limitation that prevented me from going to the Land Board so that I could cast my vote,” Bradbury told OPB.
In Portland, then-Mayor Vera Katz chose almost radical transparency when she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2004. She even invited a reporter and photographer to tag along to treatment sessions.
“She approached her illness with an understanding that she had been elected to serve by the people, and they had a vested interest in whether or not she could fulfill her commitments,” said Judy Tuttle, a former chief of staff who noted Katz was, outside of her cancer, an extremely private person. “The public had a right to know whether she could do the duty of her office.”
Katz's prognosis was dire — so much so that staff moved up a farewell party during her last term for fear she wouldn't live to the original, later date. But Katz survived that round of cancer and made it through her term. She died at 84 last year.
At a memorial service for the late mayor, former Oregonian reporter Erin Hoover Barnett recounted a morning in 2004 when Katz rushed an emergency blood transfusion in order to make it to City Hall in time for a council meeting. Tuttle vividly remembers that day.
“I think Commissioner [Erik] Sten got to open the council meeting, but they hadn’t gotten to the first item of the day yet,” Tuttle said. “She came flying in.”
More recently, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish has undergone treatment for stomach cancer for more than a year. He's been candid about the diagnosis and offered occasional updates. For instance, when doctors recommended he alter his chemotherapy regimen in July, Fish issued a statement offering treatment details and explaining he'd be attending fewer public events. He has regularly attended City Council meetings.
“We made the decision we had to be transparent,” he told OPB. “I do think we have an obligation to share certain information with voters.”
Still, Fish noted he keeps some details to himself about treatment and its impacts.
“A couple reporters asked to follow me around for a treatment day,” he said. “After talking to my wife, she felt that was the last zone of privacy that we had.”
The question of how to handle such matters, obviously, isn’t limited to Oregon officials. Nationally, high-profile figures such as U.S. Sen. John McCain and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have opted to offer details about their cancer diagnoses.
Richardson has approached the question of what to share somewhat differently. While the secretary has offered regular video updates, his office has repeatedly declined to give specifics about what type of cancer he faces, or his treatment regimen.
Speculation has emerged in absence of those facts.
In recent months, rumors have spread that Richardson has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, the extremely fast-moving brain cancer that recently felled McCain. In November, the Salem Reporter cited anonymous sources to report two top-level state officials had conversations in which Richardson personally told them of the diagnosis, and that he’d decided to forego a standard surgical procedure, opting for other treatment. OPB also has received the account of both of those officials, on condition of anonymity.
Richardson’s office hasn’t confirmed or denied the diagnosis, but has denied that Richardson shared the detail with state officials. Asked questions about Richardson’s condition, his treatment plan and how often he works out of his Salem office, his chief of staff, Debra Royal, sent back a short statement saying the secretary’s “health status remains optimistic.”
Richardson has privately shared some details with friends at the Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, told OPB that Richardson has described the toll chemotherapy has taken on him.
What information the secretary has shared publicly since his May diagnosis has been largely upbeat.
In a late July video update, Richardson said he'd chosen "to use medical advances so that I can focus on serving you as secretary of state," and that recent testing showed his tumor hadn't grown.
“It is too early to draw any firm conclusions, but what I do know is I’m feeling better than I have in weeks,” he said.
A month later, there was another video update: "As you can probably hear in my voice, I'm a bit fatigued," said Richardson, whose swollen appearance marked a notable change from a month before. "The powerful medications my doctors have me on are certainly doing their jobs. But like many therapies, the side effects seem worse than the illness."
Richardson said in the video he’d begun splitting his time between Salem and an office in his hometown of Central Point, and had cut down on public appearances and travel to focus on his duties.
“Other than that, nothing has changed,” he said.
In a November video wishing Oregonians a happy Thanksgiving, Richardson assured viewers: “We’re not slowing down. I will continue to honor my commitment to work hard to bring accountability, transparency and integrity to state government and our agency as well …”
The most recent video, released Dec. 13, marked something of a change. For the first time, it showed Richardson speaking slower, with occasional difficulty finding words. The good news, he said, was that his three most recent MRIs had shown his tumor had not grown.
“The most challenging effect of my treatment is the fluency of the speech patterns,” Richardson said. “Some days my speech feels unaffected, and other days I feel difficult to articulate the words even though I’m still thinking clearly. It’s frustrating for me when my speech doesn’t keep up with my mind. But I’m sure glad that it isn’t the other way around.”
That optimism notwithstanding, observers have been quick to seize on behavior that seems uncharacteristic for the usually chipper Richardson — for instance a June Land Board meeting in which the secretary seemed to struggle to find words, or a recent NBC News story on Oregon’s voting system in which Richardson appeared to have left nearly all the speaking to a former secretary of state, Phil Keisling.
Officials have refused to go on the record with those concerns, citing the sensitivities of Richardson’s condition. There’s also the politically touchy fact that Richardson is the only Republican holding statewide office in Oregon.
Despite all of this, there is little discernible difference to the public between how the secretary of state’s office operates today and how it operated prior to Richardson’s diagnosis.
The office, for example, continues to regularly release audits, including a recent report that turned up shortcomings in Oregon's system for tracking prescriptions of opioids and other drugs. (Richardson didn't appear at a press conference revealing those results.) Businesses are still being registered. And the Nov. 6 election, as with most Oregon elections, appears to have gone off without a hitch.
Richardson’s public calendar suggests he continued to participate in many of the same internal meetings in the months after his diagnosis as he did in the those preceding it. Calendars from June to late August showed frequent morning meetings with his executive staff and weekly meetings with division directors within his office. Other meetings outside the office showed up less frequently.
At the same time, Richardson has a suite of employees who can handle much office business, including a deputy secretary of state, chief of staff and managers who oversee auditing, elections, business registrations and the state archives.
“It’s always a challenge to make sure you get good managers in those positions,” Bradbury said. “They do most of the day-to-day.”
Against that backdrop, Richardson’s October decision to no longer attend Land Board meetings stood out. It was the most evident example to date of Richardson’s illness impacting his duties.
In announcing he’d be sending Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings in his stead, Richardson cited the Oregon Constitution and a state statute as his authority. Those weren’t enough to stop the state treasurer’s office from questioning whether the move was legal. The office asked the DOJ for an opinion as to whether an unelected staffer like Cummings could vote in lieu of the secretary of state.
The moves gave pause to others OPB spoke with as well.
“Having somebody else sit in that position or take those kinds of votes who was not elected, it seems to me, would be a different kind of decision making process,” said Tuttle, who noted she occasionally took personal meetings for Katz during the mayor’s illness. “For me, and speaking only for me, that would be like me sitting in on council and taking a vote on her behalf.”
Bradbury said he "would question" Richardson's deputy voting for him on Land Board matters. While it's true many items the board takes up are mundane, it occasionally runs up against issues of intense public interest. It's currently considering a sale of the 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest that has spurred feedback from around the state.
The Oregon DOJ apparently agreed with people who questioned Richardson’s decision. On Dec. 17, a day before the next scheduled Land Board meeting, Richardson’s office circulated a letter indicating he’d no longer send Cummings in his place.
Steve Elzinga, Richardson’s governmental and legal affairs director, wrote in the letter that the move followed advice from the office of the attorney general, which “disagreed in part” with Richardson’s decision to send Cummings.
In fact, a draft DOJ opinion concluded that the Oregon Constitution didn’t provide for a deputy secretary of state to sit on the Land Board, and that any votes Cummings took in Richardson’s place would likely be invalidated by a court.
But Elzinga also made something else clear: His office doesn't agree with justice officials.
“Although our office has a different perspective on this,” he wrote, “Secretary Richardson does not want to waste taxpayer resources on a lengthy legal fight to vindicate his rights as a member of the land board.”
Richardson attended the Dec. 18 land board meeting via telephone. He kept his comments brief.