SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon’s highest-ranking Republican in state government, a former combat helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War who fought brain cancer as he tried to fulfill his duties as secretary of state, has died at age 69.
Dennis Richardson died at home Tuesday night surrounded by family and friends, his office said in a statement.
Richardson announced in June that he had been diagnosed the previous month with brain cancer. As he battled the disease, he kept working, encouraging Oregonians to register to vote, using social media as a pro-democracy tool and overseeing audits done by his office’s audit team.
As secretary of state, Richardson was Oregon’s top elections official and held the second-highest office in the state after the governor.
During the election last November, he stood outside in cold, windy weather next to a roadside ballot drop-off box and thanked motorists for voting. Trim and with a soldier’s erect posture, he often communicated with Oregonians as secretary of state through videos.
On the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives, where Richardson served for 12 years, he was fondly remembered Wednesday by lawmakers.
Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, who once worked on then Rep. Richardson’s staff, said he sometimes slept on Richardson’s couch. He recalled being woken up at 5 a.m. by the sound of Richardson making smoothies, and being handed one.
“It was like a mixture of sunflower seeds, kelp and mud,” Stark said, adding that it tasted horrible but that he drank it because he wanted to have the same energy as Richardson, who often worked until midnight.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who once served with Richardson in the Legislature, said he will always remember his “tremendous appreciation for his dedication to Oregon.”
“He put his service to Oregon ahead of all else. He brought a spirit of perseverance, determination and a hard work ethic to each office he served,” added Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain.
“Regardless of what side of the aisle his colleagues sat on, we all knew Dennis’ kind heart guided his career of service to the people of Oregon,” said Gov. Kate Brown, who ordered all flags at public institutions to be flown at half-staff in honor of Richardson.
Brown will appoint Richardson’s successor in coming weeks. Her office said she would consider a Republican who commits to not entering the 2020 election.
Lawmakers on the House floor recalled fondly Richardson’s time there.
Richardson, who served in the Army, stood up for veterans, including appearing in a video on Oct. 5 promoting a business luncheon aimed at giving them more business opportunities.
He also supported diversity, recently promoting a “Black in Oregon, 1840-1870” exhibit at the Oregon State Archives, an agency of his office.
“It reminds us that, although we have come a long way on the path of freedom and equality, we still have much to do if we truly are committed to ‘liberty and justice for all,’” he wrote.
Richardson and his wife Cathy have eight daughters, one of them adopted. As such, he paid special interest to the state’s substandard foster care system. An audit conducted by his office, released in February, said caseworkers were strained to the breaking point amid a drop in available foster homes for 11,000 youngsters and cited management shortcomings.
“This isn’t a problem for the governor to fix, not a problem for the Legislature just to fix. It’s our problem. These are our children,” Richardson told journalists.
On Aug. 28, he appeared in a video on his office’s Facebook page, speaking in a hoarse voice and saying he was fatigued from the strong medications he was receiving, but insisting he was doing well in fighting the illness while fighting for Oregonians as secretary of state.
“I am still on the job, and all in for Oregon,” he said.
But on Oct. 16, he advised his two colleagues on the State Land Board, Brown and state Treasurer Tobias Read, that he was not well enough to attend a scheduled meeting the next day. He assigned Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings to attend the meetings for the duration of his cancer treatment.
Still, he attended the swearing in in January of Oregon’s new labor commissioner, smiling and shaking the hands of well-wishers and standing throughout the ceremony.
Richardson was elected to the second-highest office of the state in 2016, two years after running unsuccessfully for governor as the Republican nominee, losing to Democrat John Kitzhaber.
A Mormon, Richardson received his bachelor and law degrees from Brigham Young University. He then set up a law practice in the Central Point, Oregon, where he worked for more than 30 years.
House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said in a statement that Oregon has “suffered a great loss.”
“Dennis was a steadfast man who loved family, his country, the State of Oregon, and the people he served,” Wilson said.
Eds: This version corrects that Richardson had 8 daughters, not 7.
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