Colleagues mourn the loss of Dennis Richardson
Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson died at his Central Point home Tuesday night, his office announced Wednesday. He had been fighting brain cancer for months.
"Dennis passed away at his home surrounded by family and friends," according to a statement from Leslie Cummings, deputy secretary of state.
"If you spent time with Dennis, it wouldn't be long before he shared with you his personal motto of 'Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus,' which means: Having been given much, what will you give in return? This philosophy influenced every aspect of Dennis' life and became the hallmark by which many knew him," her statement said.
The 69-year-old helicopter pilot served six terms in the Oregon House before being elected secretary of state in 2016. He is survived by his wife, Cathy, eight daughters and one son.
Gov. Kate Brown will appoint Richardson’s replacement. By law, she must appoint a Republican, and said she plans to pick someone who does not plan to seek election to the office. That decision will be made in the coming weeks, she said.
Richardson was known in the House as a tireless worker, often being the last light on in the building. He often sent lengthy newsletters to constituents, working to keep them informed of his work. For his home town, he worked doggedly to raise enough funds to build the Oregon Fallen War Heroes memorial in Don Jones Park.
As secretary of state, Richardson was a fierce advocate for voting access and bolstered the state’s audit system, earning the praise of many despite being the only Republican to hold statewide office.
He was second in line to the governor’s seat.
Richardson announced his battle with cancer in June, saying he was diagnosed in late May. Through the summer, he scaled back his duties, delegating more authority to subordinates such as Cummings and his chief of staff, Debra Royal.
Former state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, worked closely with Richardson when they were both co-chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, spending hours debating the state’s budget from 2011 to 2013.
“We battled for hours,” Buckley said. “Sen. (Richard) Devlin had to be our referee. We aged Sen. Devin considerably.”
Once, as an April Fool’s Day joke, the Legislature decided to celebrate Richardson’s appointment as speaker pro-tem by having each member of the House hold up a photo of Richardson when he got up to speak.
“He seemed to enjoy that greatly,” Buckley said.
Another time, after a long discussion about a budget matter, Richardson offered the last word.
“’I think everything about this topic has been said’ and then a big pause, ‘But not by me,’” Buckley recalled Richardson saying.
Buckley said Richardson was focused on his work and his family.
“When he wasn’t working, then it was time for his family,” Buckley said. “He liked to joke about all the daughters he and his wife had and all the chaos they so willingly created.”
Buckley remembers Richardson as someone who was detail-oriented and someone who would grill agency directors about their budgets.
One time, he remembers Richardson saying he couldn’t believe it cost so much money for the state to run a residential program for the developmentally disabled.
As a result, Richardson decided he needed to view the program in action, coming away with a different impression.
“He said that program was underfunded,” Buckley recalls. “At first he was really critical of social service programs.”
Buckley and Richardson were considered the odd couple in Salem, but Buckley said that despite their differences he did learn from Richardson that it was important to find ways to sustain state programs rather than to focus on short-term gains.
“I gave him credit for getting me to look at the long-term issues,” Buckley said.
Many longtime colleagues shared their sorrow Tuesday after learning of Richardson’s passing.
“Dennis Richardson was a kind and decent man. He served his country with distinction in the military,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland. He served his community of Southern Oregon and the state of Oregon with integrity and dedication. I had the pleasure of serving with Secretary Richardson in the Legislature for many years. He loved this state, and we will miss him.”
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, weighed in as well, calling Richardson a budget hawk.
House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, called Richardson’s death a “great loss.”
“Dennis was a steadfast man who loved family, his country, the state of Oregon, and the people he served,” Wilson said. “This loss is a difficult one for us all. His death will be deeply mourned by all his former colleagues in the Oregon House of Representatives.”
Former state Rep. Julie Parrish met Richardson in 2010 when she was running for her House seat. Upon election, Richardson became her mentor. Over the years, the two built close professional and personal relationships.
Parrish said Richardson came from a scrappy background before serving in Vietnam, running rescue missions as a helicopter pilot.
“You had to have drive and tenacity,” Parrish said of the work, which she called “suicide missions.”
Richardson told her he needed to process his wartime experiences and find a new way to serve, so he became a trial lawyer, then a politician. She helped him launch his 2014 bid for governor.
The backdrop of Richardson’s run for governor was a fractured Oregon Republican Party, where several major names declined to run. Oregon hadn’t elected a Republican governor since Victor Atiyeh in 1982.
Richardson became the only serious competitor in a six-person primary, receiving nearly 66 percent of the primary vote.
He went on to face former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was running for his fourth term overall and his second consecutive. The race tightened as Kitzhaber became marred in controversy over the past of his fiancé, Cylvia Hayes, and the private contracts her consulting business received.
Kitzhaber ultimately won 50 to 44 percent.
After he lost, Parrish said, Richardson took a year off to serve a mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Parrish said she repeatedly pushed him to run for secretary of state, and he eventually relented. She ran his campaign, and brought him to places like North Portland, which Republican politicians usually ignore, she said.
“He was the nonpartisan leader for all of us,” Parrish said.
But even his 12 years in the House, working long days, didn’t prepare him for being secretary of state, Parrish said. So Richardson set in. He rented a small apartment in Salem within walking distance to the Capitol.
Parrish said he lived and breathed fiscal conservancy, evidenced by the air mattress he used for a bed until his wife made him by a real one.
And in two years, Parrish said, Richardson fulfilled his campaign promises. The last item to check off his list was a deep audit into issues that have plagued Portland Public Schools for years.
“He did what he said he was going to do,” Parrish said. “He made a commitment to really run that office through the lens of someone who wasn’t partisan.”
In his two years as secretary of state, Richardson’s auditors reviewed troubled state programs ranging from health care to education. Less than six months into his tenure, in May 2017, he made waves when he published a one-page report warning of millions of dollars in erroneous payments in the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program, which covers low-income Oregonians and other qualifying groups.
Many Democrats decried the move as politically motivated and said his claims about the program were overblown.
But Richardson felt strongly that the health care program needed more scrutiny. In his budget request last year, for the 2019-21 budget, Richardson asked the Legislature for money to pay for a team of auditors to train its sights on Medicaid full-time.
He especially poured himself into an audit of the foster care system, as one of his daughters, Mary Burnell, was adopted from a foster home. That one, she said, was “deeply personal” for Richardson.
In a video released during Richardson’s campaign, Burnell, who is now a physician’s assistant in Portland, said she came from a foster home where she wasn’t fed properly and was given the wrong size shoes.
“It was amazing being adopted into the Richardson family, so warm and welcoming. I had never had anything like that,” she said.
And Richardson never gave up, even through the battle with cancer. Richardson was mounting a re-election campaign for 2020. He had set up a political action committee and started fundraising.
She saw how the cancer left him struggling to communicate, but he remained optimistic.
“He really thought he was cruising along trying to get this cured up,” she said.
Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann contributed to this story.