By Reagan Knopp
Dennis Richardson’s personal story of perseverance takes him from his birthplace in Los Angles to the capitol building in Salem. The office contains enough cubicles to house a handful of staff, and one very important office – The office of Oregon’s Secretary of State. Richardson is well-known as the first Republican to win statewide elected office in Oregon in over a decade. How he got there is somewhat less well-known. I sat down with Dennis Richardson to find out.
Richardson was born in Los Angles, California, and married young. Shortly thereafter he joined the military. He was deployed as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. His wife was given custody of his only son in their divorce while he was still in Vietnam.
When Richardson returned, he took some time to get refocused. Eventually meeting and marrying his wife, Cathy. The Richardson’s have eight daughters. Seven by birth and one adopted.
Richardson graduated from BYU Law School. Is was after this that he and his wife had a difficult decision to make; where would their family put down roots. “There are two times you can go wherever you want,” Richardson said. “When you’re really rich and when you’re really poor.” The Richardson family eventually selected the Medford-area as home.
Richardson’s Political Career Begins
In 1984, Richardson was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan to meet with the President and his cabinet. “They invited one or two people from each state who they viewed as ‘Young Turks’. Those they thought had a potential in politics. I was just a young attorney, working hard.” Richardson explained. “I don’t know how they got my name but it was a great experience to go back and listen to the cabinet speak and the President and hear what was important to them. I found they were very sincere honorable men. I became a Reagan Republican.”
A few short years later, Richardson began his political career serving on the local school board budget committee.
A Life of Service
While it was President Reagan that pushed Richardson’s interest in public service, it was Benjamin Franklin that convinced him to devote the latter part of his life to the endeavor. “I was reading a biography on Benjamin Franklin. He had a philosophy about life. For the first fifty years of your life, you take from society. Get your education, learn a trade, make money, hopefully get out of debt and get some passive income coming in. Then that sets you up in your second 50 years to serve.” It was this philosophy that Richardson took to heart.
At 50, Dennis Richardson and his family prepared to focus more greatly on public service. Richardson served as a city councilor in Central Point. In 2002, he ran for State Representative. “I ran for a number of reasons but one was that the city kept getting unfunded mandates,” he said. This pushed Richardson to go to Salem by way of State Representative to discover why the state was handing down these mandates.
“I was so green and inexperienced, I didn’t know you couldn’t beat an incumbent.” Richardson didn’t face off against just any incumbent. As it turns out, he was running against the assistant House Majority Leader, a Republican named Cherryl Walker. “She had the caucus backing and the lobby behind her.” Richardson emerged the victor.
“I live by a philosophy that if you’re faced with a challenge. You consider your options. Develop a plan. You execute the plan, and failure is not an option. You don’t look back. Only look forward. It’s a way you can live life without regrets.”
Richardson did not intend to run for office again, after losing the Governor’s race to John Kitzhaber in 2014. In 2015, Richardson focused on local service. “Kathy and I worked at a non-profit employment office helping people get jobs.” The Richardsons coached job seekers on their resumes and conducted mock interviews to help improve their interview skills. “What we found was that most people just needed a mentor and an opportunity.” Richardson helped many people, some convicted of felonies, to find work, go back to school, and even start their own businesses.
Richardson noted there were two different groups doing polling of statewide races in 2015. He announced in April of 2015 that he wasn’t going to run for Governor, opening the way for a primary between Bud Pierce and Allen Alley. “I could have run a great campaign and I might have gotten 45% of the vote. I didn’t believe I could win the Governor’s race.”
The unnamed groups continued to do polling. They showed Richardson with statewide name recognition north of sixty percent. “The problems I wanted to solve when I ran for Governor still hadn’t been solved,” said Richardson. “The Secretary of State has the power to help solve some of those problems I still wanted to solve.” Richardson wanted to make government more transparent, accountable, and to restore trust. He noted that ensuring a good education for low-income children was also a high priority.
“I struggled for two months to decide,” Richardson said he knew he could help solve these problems as Oregon’s Secretary of State and wouldn’t be satisfied unless he sought the position.
Richardson doesn’t rethink decisions he’s already made unless he gets new information. “It’s a waste of energy. There’s too many people who second guess themselves. I don’t think it makes sense to rethink a decision if you’ve already gone through that process.”
On Election Day, after a brutal campaign against Democrat Brad Avakian, Richardson once again emerged as the winner. “We watched the polling closely. It looked good all the way through.”
A Winning Message
“Too many Republicans spend their time trying to make sure that they only satisfy their base. What’s important is to have the trust of the base while campaigning to help all of Oregon. You can’t win unless you’re watching out for the whole state.”
Richardson intentionally didn’t get involved in the Presidential race. “It wasn’t part of what I would be doing as Secretary of State.” Richardson highlighted his promise to be a Secretary of State that would not operate as a Democrat or a Republican but an Oregonian. This was an important part of his winning message.
Secretary of State
Richardson had his work cut out for him. “I knew coming into this job that there was significant waste happening in state government,” Richardson said, aiming his sights at Oregon’s failed energy tax credit, Cover Oregon, and the dead Columbia River Crossing project.
He wants to ensure that such problems are not repeated. His office will assign small audit teams to track large projects from the start, keeping legislators informed and aware of progress and problems.
Richardson also addressed questions of election rigging in Oregon saying, “If they were rigged, I wouldn’t have won.” In a recent newsletter, Richardson further expounded on his confidence in Oregon’s election system, which is decentralized and makes use of paper ballots.
“It’s easy to say the legislature has oversight responsibility. I already know they don’t have adequate staffing to do that. When it comes to auditors, we do have the staff.” Richardson has already made it clear to his audits team that their reports should be written primarily for the people and their elected representatives. “We’re working to have the audits division become a Government Accountability Office for the state.”
The Secretary of State’s office even has the ability to use subpoena power against agencies but Richardson prefers a collaborative process, saying he would only use this power as a last resort.
When I asked how Oregonians could get involved, Richardson presented several opportunities. “[They] can call 1-800-336-8218 to report fraud, waste, and abuse in Oregon state government.” Richardson’s office has also launched a statewide newsletter.
Whistleblowers are welcome here. “We protect them and their identity from retaliation and retribution.” Richardson also urged Oregonians to get involved in the election process by being educated voters.
As our interview concluded, someone had already arrived for his next scheduled meeting. Richardson is clearly hard at work. A majority of Oregonians put him in office for a reason. Now he’s carrying out an agenda focused on bringing transparency and trust to state government.