Secretary of State Dennis Richardson built his political reputation in Oregon’s House of Representatives — cultivating a relentless work ethic and sharp debating skills, while impressing even foes with his fundamental decency.
It was in the same House chamber that Richardson was remembered Wednesday, by a bipartisan array of dignitaries who’d gathered to honor the life of Oregon’s 26th secretary of state.
Gov. Kate Brown said Richardson “embodied what it means to be a dedicated public servant.”
Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling called him “someone for whom the notion of public service was stitched strong and lasting in the warp and woof of his soul.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the lone Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, said “If there were a hall of fame for the tenacious, [Richardson] would have certainly been inducted years ago.”
Richardson, 69, died Feb. 26 in his Central Point home. He'd been battling brain cancer since a diagnosis in May 2018.
The service marked a show of pomp for a departed dignitary that Oregon hasn’t seen in more than three decades. The last state funeral in Oregon’s Capitol was for former Gov. Tom McCall in 1983. Debra Royal, Richardson’s chief of staff, said plans for the ceremony began shortly after Richardson death.
“We started this process the evening of his passing,” Royal said Wednesday. “The next day, it was pedal to the metal. In six days, we have done something here that none of us have ever done before.”
The funeral — somber and humorous in near equal measure — played out in a House chamber filled to near capacity, with Richardson’s flag-draped casket at the head of the room. Those unable to secure a ticket could watch from overflow areas around the building.
Three of Richardson’s daughters and one of his 31 grandchildren sang songs in his honor. An elder in the Mormon church, of which Richardson was a dedicated member, also spoke.
But in the setting of the Capitol, the most powerful memories came from those who’d worked — and sparred — with Richardson during his years in public life.
“We often called him the Energizer Bunny,” said Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings, currently acting secretary in Richardson’s stead. “He would be in the office ready to take things from seven in the morning ‘til well after seven in the evening. His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we found ourselves trying to follow. He wore us out.”
A more frank assessment came from state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who served with Richardson on the Legislature's powerful budget writing committee. She recalled how Richardson had helped her district find money to recover from damaging floods, and that she received flack when, in return, she'd supported his bid for secretary of state in 2016.
In a line that drew laughs throughout the chamber, Johnson joked: “At a state funeral, it’s inevitable that some in attendance will imagine their own memorial someday — which of their political enemies will suddenly discover the deceased’s wisdom, their integrity, now that they’re not around to make trouble — or at least audit them.”
Johnson went on to tie Richardson’s philosophies as a lawmaker to his time as an Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.
“He had seen the worst that can happen when people are required to carry out someone else’s political decisions,” Johnson said. “He carried that lesson with him to the end, which came too soon. Dennis Richardson still had work to do.”
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman took to the lectern and recalled how Richardson, mulling a run for Oregon Secretary of State, called her in 2016 to inquire how she’d won as a Republican in her deep blue state.
The two became friends, Wyman said. In January, as Richardson’s condition was worsening, he sent her a card after she lost both of her parents.
“This card was the most meaningful,” Wyman said, holding the missive aloft. “He wanted to comfort me in my time of loss in the final days of his journey with cancer. It told me everything about his character and it will always be an example that I will take with me.”
The funeral closed with a 21-gun salute. Richardson’s casket was loaded into a hearse bearing the seal of the U.S. Army, and driven away.
The remembrance of Richardson began earlier Wednesday, as visitors, lawmakers and others paused to pay tribute to the statesman in the Capitol rotunda. Republicans from the House gathered at the casket in the morning and sang “Amazing Grace.”
Oregon’s Legislature, a little over a month into its legislative session, halted activity for the afternoon.
Royal said Richardson’s passing befitted a state funeral because he was “such a unique statesman in Oregon — especially in this time. He was never afraid to grow and learn.”
A trial attorney, Richardson got to politics late in life. He was in his 50s when he first won a seat representing Southern Oregon in the House of Representatives. He’d go on to spend six terms there, earning a reputation for keeping long hours, and eventually rising to a lead position on the budget committee.
Richardson gained statewide prominence in 2014, when he mounted an unsuccessful bid for the governor’s office, losing to incumbent John Kitzhaber. Not dissuaded by the loss, Richardson ran for secretary of state just two years later, and became the first Republican to win statewide office in Oregon in 14 years.
In the last stage of his career, Richardson’s political life at times began to resist easy categorization. He won his House seat in 2002 after challenging a Republican incumbent for not being conservative enough on social issues, and made a name for himself in the chamber as a relentless debater and fiscal hawk.
“He was an extraordinary adversary,” Senate President Peter Courtney said last week, in a speech on the Senate floor. “Very detailed, very exact, very precise, very persuasive, very articulate. Highest regard for his debating skills.”
But Richardson — despite concerns over his hardline views against same-sex marriage and abortion — won the trust of Oregon’s left-leaning electorate in 2016 with a pledge to bring a sharp eye to the business of governance. While secretary of state, he made a mission of conducting and publicizing blistering audits of the Oregon’s child welfare and education systems, with unsparing findings for the Democratic politicians overseeing those functions.
At the same time, Richardson didn’t join Republicans elsewhere in the country in raising the spectre of voter fraud, and pushing increased restrictions to casting a ballot. Instead, he swatted aside any notion that Oregon had a fraud problem, and went about making it less likely inactive voters would be scrapped from voter rolls. At the time of his death, Richardson had joined Gov. Kate Brown in a call for paid postage on Oregon’s mail-in ballots — a provision aimed squarely at increasing voter participation.
“Dennis’ kind heart guided him and his work,” Brown said Wednesday. “He always treated me and other fellow lawmakers with kindness, respect and civility. This is his legacy.”
Richardson announced in June 2018 that he'd been diagnosed with a small, cancerous brain tumor. But unlike many politicians in similar circumstances, Richardson elected to keep many details of his condition private, providing most information in periodic, optimistic video dispatches.
But Richardson was also forced to pull back meaningfully from his public role. He ceased attending hearings of the Oregon Land Board in person, and at one point tried to send his deputy chief of staff in his place. Richardson made less and less frequent trips to Salem, electing to work instead from his hometown.
Richardson will be laid to rest on Thursday in Medford. It falls to the governor to appoint his replacement. Brown must appoint a Republican to fill the seat, and has said she’ll only consider someone who doesn’t intend to run for election to the post in 2020.
For the time being, Richardson’s job will be done by Cummings, his deputy, who recounted Wednesday a supportive and kind boss, who helped her after her son died in a work-related accident.
“Dennis immediately stepped up as an older brother would,” Cummings said. “He prayed for me and provided the gentle encouragement I would need to get through.
“Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for a life well lived. A life that mattered.”