Heartfelt Tribute to Dennis Richardson

By Nick Smith,

Dennis Richardson loved his family and lived his faith. He served his country in Vietnam and cherished the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. He was devoted to Oregon and its citizens. Republicans loved Dennis. Democrats respected and trusted him. What’s striking in the days following his passing is everyone seems to have their own story about this very special man. This is mine.

I first met Dennis Richardson 17 years ago at his law office in Central Point. Back then he wasn’t widely known as a politician and public servant, though he was a city councilman, completing his service as Oregon Republican Party Treasurer and running his first campaign for the Oregon House. Many in the Rogue Valley knew him as a personal injury attorney because he always advertised on the back of the phone book. I was introduced to Dennis by my then-girlfriend, who sought his legal counsel after an auto collision. She called his office because he advertised a “compassionate” approach to his clients and the law. Indeed compassion was just one of Dennis’ many virtues.

My decision to volunteer for Dennis’ first campaign changed my life forever. He was an unapologetic social and fiscal conservative, and that initially didn’t sit well with the Rogue Valley’s political establishment. Foreshadowing his later campaigns for statewide office, Dennis was unfairly attacked as an extremist. Yet, through hours of knocking on doors and delivering signs in his rural district, it was clear that average, hard-working people trusted Dennis to represent them. He would never betray their trust, and would later earn the trust of many Oregonians across the political spectrum.

Dennis Richardson was a God-fearing man, but the man himself was fearless. Like others who had the opportunity to travel extensively with Dennis, our conversations occasionally turned to his service in Vietnam. Dennis was rightfully proud of his military service but never wore it on his sleeve. He once remarked that after piloting a helicopter in combat, there wasn’t much left to fear. Arriving in Salem as a freshman legislator, Dennis was fully prepared to engage in a war of ideas.

I had the honor of serving Dennis as his legislative aide during his first term and we shared an apartment a few blocks away from the Capitol. We were both new to the Legislature, and in a 35-member(!) House Republican caucus, freshmen members were expected to be seen and not heard. With little interest in engaging in the endless, boozy receptions that were still common in Salem at the time, we spent many late nights working at the Capitol. His work ethic was incredible, even as his Type I diabetes challenged his stamina. Early in the 2003 session we launched his electronic newsletter, which he spent hours composing himself, that would become legendary in time. He always paid attention to what was happening back home, signing thousands of “nice notes” congratulating and recognizing constituents for every kind of accomplishment.

Dennis was firm but fair, and expected much from his staff, his leadership and his colleagues. He was honest, and when he told you he’d do something, he did it. As a legislator, he was highly principled and well-versed in the state and federal constitutions, and was one of the very few legislators who read every word of every bill up for a vote. Dennis was also among the first state officials to champion PERS reform and spent countless hours becoming an expert on the subject. He loathed turf battles among state bureaucrats and was frank and professional in his dealings with lobbyists.

Through his passion and hard-work, Dennis gained the respect of Republican leadership and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Dennis never surrendered his conservatism and always stood by the principles of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Yet as Co-Chair of the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services, he understood that government, run responsibly and efficiently, can help people in need. The deep knowledge he gained overseeing the Human Services budget would serve him well as the Republican Co-Chair of the full Joint Ways and Means Committee during the historic 30-30 tie in the Oregon House in 2011-12.

My service to Dennis Richardson ended after the 2005 session, after he graciously encouraged me to take an open position in the House Republican Office. I was then merely a witness to the remainder of his extraordinary political career. As an Oregon Republican, I found it unfair that he lost his gubernatorial election to a Democratic Governor who just months later would resign in disgrace. Though he became the first Republican to win statewide office in decades, I believed he deserved more than the Secretary of State’s Office. Yet he did more in two years as Secretary of State than the last three Secretaries combined. He became the de-facto “ombudsman” of Oregon state government and served all Oregonians with honesty, integrity and respect. Had he defeated the cancer that took his life, Dennis could have, and should have been, Governor.

God bless you Dennis Richardson and the life you lived. God bless Cathy Richardson and the wonderful extended Richardson family. Dennis, your service to your state and country is complete. Rest in peace.