UPDATE (7:45 a.m. PT) — Dennis Richardson, the first Republican to hold the Oregon secretary of state’s office in nearly four decades, died Tuesday night following a battle with brain cancer, his office announced Wednesday morning.
Gov. Kate Brown will appoint Richardson’s successor, who must be a Republican. But under the Oregon Constitution, that appointee cannot ascend to the governorship in the case of a vacancy, as is standard. Brown has said she’ll appoint a Republican who will not run for election to the office in 2020.
The next in line of succession is now Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat. Richardson, 69, in 2016 became the rare Republican to win statewide office in Oregon in recent decades. A trial attorney from Jackson County, he served 12 years in the Oregon House before he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014.
The name recognition he earned in that race – against Democratic incumbent John Kitzhaber, who resigned amidst a scandal just weeks into his new term – helped set Richardson up for a successful campaign for secretary of state.
“He really thought you should be a moral actor in the world,” said former Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who often clashed with Richardson on policy but came to admire him as a person. “He was always tremendously hardworking and a skilled advocate for his positions.”
“There’s just not a person down here [in state government] that doesn’t have respect and regard for Dennis Richardson,” said former Republican Rep. Julie Parrish, who managed his campaign for secretary of state. “He’s an honest broker.”
Gov. Kate Brown ordered that flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of Richardson.
“Regardless of what side of the aisle his colleagues sat on, we all knew Dennis’ kind heart guided his career of service to the people of Oregon,” Brown said in a statement. “His reputation for perseverance not only guided him through the fight with cancer, it also gave us all reassurance that he was fighting cancer with the same determination he brought to work every day.”
Other tributes also quickly poured in. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., praised Richardson as a “wonderful public servant, and a deeply loving husband and parent. Dennis’ quiet competence and civility is such a rarity in today’s world.” House Speaker Tina Kotek called him “a man of integrity and a dedicated public servant.”
Richardson, who didn’t turn to politics until his 50s, freely admitted that he struggled as a young man to find his sense of direction. His first marriage ended in divorce while he was serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
He returned home having a “difficult time trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, where I was going to fit in,” he told OPB in a 2017 interview.
He eventually turned to The Book of Mormon – his father was a lapsed member of the church — and was filled with a “sense of love that was overwhelming” and that “changed me dramatically.” Richardson and his second wife, Cathy, went on to have eight daughters — their youngest was adopted out of the state foster care system — while he built a successful law practice.
“I can’t emphasize enough how often he’d come back to the importance of family,” Buckley said. “It’s really so central to him.”
In his campaign for secretary of state, Richardson promised to hold Oregon government accountable in his role overseeing the state audits division.
Once in office, he released well-publicized reports probing the state’s troubled foster care system and the tangled finances of the Oregon Health Authority.
He also fulfilled a campaign promise to launch an audit of Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, which was in the midst of management turmoil.
Recognizing that registered Republicans made up only about a quarter of the state’s voters, Richardson repeatedly made a point that he wasn’t in office to serve a partisan agenda.
“If somebody has to pass your personal litmus test to be a Republican or get your support,” he told one GOP gathering in early 2018, “our party is doomed.”
Richardson, the state’s chief elections official, followed through on this by rejecting national Republican rhetoric about rampant voter fraud. He defended Oregon’s mail ballot-system and eased rules on how long someone could remain registered to vote even if they didn’t actually participate in any elections.
He also talked about his political evolution as an official with a statewide constituency.
For example, he built bridges with the state’s African-American community, saying he realized he didn’t have any black friends. He said he had been learning about white privilege and had changed his mind about affirmative action, which he had once opposed.
Many Democrats remained wary of Richardson. Some thought his audits were designed to embarrass Gov. Kate Brown. Chris Pair, the governor’s communications director, once complained to the Salem Statesman Journal that his audits “are just about politics.”
And many Republicans certainly saw his audits as useful to their political cause. Former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who ran for the Legislature in 2018, introduced Richardson at the GOP’s Dorchester Conference that year by lauding him for having “exposed the corruption in the Kate Brown administration.” Richardson insisted that he was only doing his job, not trying to score political points against Brown.
“The principle I have followed for my audits is, follow the people’s money,” he said, “and be sure the people and their elected representatives know what’s going on.”
Richardson had his misfires during his tenure as the state’s top elections official.
For example, he attempted to change initiative petitioning rules aimed at making it easier to qualify for the ballot.
But he backed off of that rules change after critics threatened legal challenges, saying that Richardson was exceeding his authority.
The notion that Richardson would be the Republican to break the Democratic stranglehold on the secretary of state’s office would have once seemed highly unlikely, in part because of his conservative views on abortion and gay rights.
He first ran for the state House as a staunch conservative, particularly on social issues. He defeated a Republican incumbent who had voted against a bill sought by the state’s major anti-abortion group, Oregon Right to Life.
Richardson sponsored a failed 2006 initiative that would have required parental notification for minors getting an abortion. In 2007, he voted against two major gay rights bills that eventually became law. One allowed domestic partnerships and the other prohibited businesses from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“It’s not in the best interest of the state of Oregon to pass a bill that places and enshrines in civil rights a behavior-based orientation,” he said in remarks that Democrats flung back at him in his race for governor.
During his campaign for secretary of state, he insisted that his views on gay rights and abortion – both of which differed with most Oregon voters – wouldn’t affect how he’d do his job. In his lengthy 2017 interview with OPB, Richardson paused for a long time before answering whether he felt it was immoral to be gay.
He finally said that he continued to believe that sex outside marriage was wrong and that marriage was a sacrament between a man, a woman and God. “And so, based on my definition, my answer is yes,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the humanity or the acceptance I have for people to make their own choices.”
Throughout his political career, Richardson was also known for his willingness to buck conventional thinking, particularly when it came to government spending. He cranked out regular newsletters that floated such unusual ideas as shipping illegal immigrants convicted of a crime to much cheaper private prisons in China.
That proposal never got off the launching ground. But Richardson’s industriousness in combing through government spending led to a spot on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee.
In just his second term, in 2005, he co-chaired the human services subcommittee, overseeing programs for frail and poor Oregonians. Richardson toured the state meeting bureaucrats, service providers and aid recipients.
“I have a greater appreciation for the size of the challenges Oregon faces in providing for its most needy citizens,” Richardson told The Oregonian then. “It’s easy to be cavalier when you don’t know what you have.”
Republicans lost control of the House in the next session, but Richardson returned as a co-chair of the full budget committee in 2011 when the House was evenly divided. He once again battled over spending, insisting the Legislature should be cautious about starting new programs.
He also pushed for large budget reserves, to protect the state in case of another recession.
Buckley, the former Ashland legislator, also served as a budget co-chair that session. He said the two “would argue ferociously” overspending on social programs and the size of the government workforce.
Buckley said Richardson maintained that “families and local communities should step up” to help care for those in need instead of always depending on the state. But he also recalled Richardson’s genuine concern for the most vulnerable.
One time, Buckley said, Richardson had complained about the high cost of residential housing programs for severely developmentally disabled adults. But he took the time to visit some of the programs and came back “and said, ‘OK, I’ve changed my mind. These programs are essential,’” Buckley said.
In 2014, Richardson took on Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber when the latter was running for re-election.
But Richardson had trouble raising money, and he wasn’t able to capitalize on revelations regarding the consulting work done by Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.
Oregon Democrats won their eighth gubernatorial race in a row, but Kitzhaber resigned under pressure just weeks after beginning his new term.
Richardson had picked up valuable name recognition during the governor’s race – as well as some vindication that he was right to question Kitzhaber’s fitness for the job.
Parrish said she and other Republicans urged Richardson to run for secretary of state in 2016 when the position would be open.
“I told him he could do a lot of what he wanted to do as governor by holding state government accountable through the audit process,” Parrish said.
The Democratic nominee, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, had emerged from a tough three-way primary. Avakian vowed to use the secretary of state’s office to get involved in a wide range of big issues, from environmental protection to corporate responsibility. Richardson focused on a more stick-to-your-knitting approach that emphasizes holding government accountable.
“His claim was you wouldn’t know if he was a Democrat or a Republican – he was just going to take a look at things,” said Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, who became friendly with Richardson after the two entered the Legislature together in 2003.
After winning, Richardson rented a nondescript apartment in Salem and dived into his new job.
But in June 2018 he told constituents in a Facebook post that he had been diagnosed a month earlier with brain cancer and was undergoing treatment.
Barker said Richardson told him in the fall that the chemotherapy was taking a lot out of him.
He stopped attending meetings of the State Land Board, which is made up of the governor, secretary of state of state treasurer.
On Nov. 16, 2018, he attended a ceremony for Oregon’s Kid Governor, which is part of a national civics program that Richardson enthusiastically brought to the state in 2017.
He sat on the stage during the event and posed for photos with students and parents afterward.
But he never spoke to the crowd, something that must have been frustrating for the usually gregarious politician.