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'A life that matters'

SALEM -- Oregon bade farewell Wednesday to Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican who defied the odds to break Democrats' three-decade grip on his office but whose bid to usher in good-government reforms was cut short when he died last week of brain cancer.

As Richardson's flag-draped casket lay in state in the Capitol rotunda, with an Army honor guard standing watch, lawmakers, friends and well-wishers paid respects to a man they said governed with unflinching integrity and lived through good-naturedness.

"Regardless of what side of the aisle his colleagues sat on, Dennis' kind heart guided him and his work," Gov. Kate Brown said in brief remarks. "He always treated me and all our fellow lawmakers with kindness, respect and civility. This is his legacy that I will always remember, and it's a very important one in today’s world."

Brown joined Republican Congressman Greg Walden, current and former lawmakers and dignitaries as well as hundreds of other mourners at the funeral service in the state House of Representatives chamber. Nearly every prominent, current political figure attended: Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, State Treasurer Tobias Read and Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, though none of Oregon’s four living former governors were present.

“Dennis always gave his best in the great cause of public service,” Walden said, noting the “sad irony” that Richardson died the same week as Norma Paulus, the previous Republican secretary of state, who left that office in 1985. Paulus served as the state’s elected schools chief until 1999.

Richardson died Feb. 26 at age 69 after a months-long struggle against brain cancer. His state funeral, the first since Gov. Tom McCall’s in 1983, served to venerate Richardson with solemnity and momentarily unite Oregon’s political leaders in a time of unusual partisan rancor and interpersonal strife at the Capitol.

Wednesday’s service assisted Oregon’s weary lawmakers to set aside their partisan dispositions and honor the demeanor Richardson cultivated as secretary of state — one in which party politics played little role in governance. That staid approach earned him the admiration of voters and the respect of Democratic and Republican officials alike.

“We didn’t always agree with Secretary Richardson, but we were inspired and impressed by his independent mind,” said Phil Keisling, a Democrat and former secretary of state.

Betsy Johnson, a notoriously tough Democratic state senator, choked back tears as she recalled that Richardson, when he held a powerful position on the Legislature’s budget committee, had written legislation to aid her flood-ravaged district and never sought to take credit for the good deed.

“Dennis placed the needs of the state above party,” Johnson said.

Still, Johnson noted, politicians are rarely exalted in life as they are in death, and Richardson, a staunch conservative, weathered his share of criticism over nearly two decades in politics. His hard-line views on abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration, sometimes inartfully expressed in the many newsletters he penned, drew negative press coverage and often put him at odds with Democrats.

Wednesday’s state funeral follows a Monday service attended by family and friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Point, where Richardson lived with Cathy Richardson, his wife of more than 40 years, raised a family and practiced law.

He was born Dennis Michael Richardson in Los Angeles in 1949, the son of a carpenter. He was a city councilor, state representative and secretary of state. But also a devoted husband, father of nine, grandfather of 31, devout Mormon and Vietnam War veteran. His personal motto – pro tanto quid retribuamus – meant “having been given much, what will you give in return?”

Richardson’s career in politics started small and local. He served on a school district budget committee. He made inroads with the local chapter of the Oregon Republican Party. He first held office as a Central Point city councilor, a position he was appointed to in early 2001.

He climbed the ladder fast, quickly declaring his candidacy for state representative against the Republican incumbent, Cherryl Walker, over her vote against stricter abortion rules, declaring that her “political and moral views don’t fit” Southern Oregon values.

He beat Walker in the primary election with 60 percent of the vote, easily won the general election, and never faced a serious challenger through six terms as state representative.

All the while, he cultivated an image as a lawmaker who fought hard for fiscal restraint and his conservative social views. Yet Richardson also earned a reputation as a kind-hearted statesman and capable negotiator.

He rose through the Legislature’s ranks to become a co-chairman of the budget committee in 2011, an unusual year where the House was tied 30-30 between Democrats and Republicans. Richardson’s diplomatic approach to penciling the state’s multibillion-dollar budget that year — regarded as a time when excessive partisanship could bring legislative gridlock — solidified his influence among Republicans.

By 2014, Richardson, ready for the statewide stage, ran for governor against John Kitzhaber, the incumbent. Though Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, faced accusations of corruption, Richardson couldn’t overcome Oregon’s strong Democratic edge, and Kitzhaber won handily.

Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state of Washington, recounted how Richardson privately discussed the campaign with her and never uttered a bad word against Kitzhaber. Wyman said the conversation was like none other she had ever had with a politician.

“He only focused on the positive,” Wyman, herself a cancer patient, said through tearful remarks. “Godspeed, Secretary Richardson.”

Richardson wasn’t out of the fight despite his loss to Kitzhaber. He launched a campaign for secretary of state the following year, casting himself as a reformer who would wield the secretary of state’s auditing powers to expose wrongdoing, waste and corruption within state government. The message carried him to victory on election night over Brad Avakian, the Democratic state labor commissioner.

Richardson hit the ground running once in office.

His auditors investigated health care spending, child welfare programs, state contracting practices, the failed Columbia River Crossing project and more — publishing reports that rocked the Democratic establishment in Salem and spotlighted significant shortcomings.

And he instituted small but meaningful reforms. He had audit reports written in plain language. He posted his agency’s spending online. He live-streamed election results. He created a “kid governor” program. He raised money so a public display could be built for the Oregon Constitution.

Following the service Wednesday, the military honor guard performed a three-volley salute on the Capitol steps, after which Richardson’s body was driven to Medford, where it will be interred.

“He continued to lead his agency and think of the people until his last breath,” Leslie Cummings, the acting secretary of state, said in a eulogy. “Thank you Mr. Secretary for a life well-lived. A life that matters.”

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's wife, Cathy, and her daughters{ } hug in front of his casket in the Capitol rotunda during his state funeral Wednesday in Salem. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)