Dennis Richardson was a courageous man.
It may seem an easy eulogy for a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who flew missions during the Vietnam War, hauling ammunition into the battlefield and injured soldiers out.
But Richardson’s courage, while surely forged during wartime, didn’t solely manifest itself in battle. The late secretary of state, who died last week of brain cancer, showed a resolve in his life of elected public service not often seen in politics.
Richardson was a man willing to stand on personal principles while serving the greater good of his state. And he showed that those objectives aren’t mutually exclusive, even in a state that didn’t often align with his own values.
He has been remembered as a budget hawk, demanding that government be held to account for spending taxpayer dollars. It was that credibility, based in his political philosophy, that sealed his win as a Republican secretary of state, Oregon’s second-highest ranking public office. And he lived up to the promise, leading audits that shined a bright light on problems and malfunctions in government programs. That work will carry on after his death.
He was particularly effective, even while undergoing cancer treatments, because the job wasn’t a stepping stone to a higher office. His unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014 nearly ended his political career, and he showed no intention of trying again.
As a state representative, Richardson was an advocate for his southern Oregon district’s values. He spoke in strong terms against abortion and same-sex marriage, counting them as affronts to God and his faith.
But as a secretary of state, Richardson used his position to benefit the state as a whole, not just his conservative constituents.
He even changed course on his approach to voter registration, supporting as secretary of state the growing number of registered voters where he once advocated in the House for stricter rules.
But in matters of personal faith and values, he was clear-eyed while remaining contemplative.
In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “All Things Considered” in September 2017, he was asked directly whether he believed homosexuality was immoral. He said he did, and the act of voters didn’t change the perspective of God. But he also said the matter was legally settled and that he was willing to accept both the humanity and personal choices of others.
Voters didn’t change his beliefs, either, though he knew the responsibility of being elected to statewide office meant representing a much wider and more diverse electorate.
We need more of these kinds of people in government leadership, willing to state their beliefs clearly while understanding that their job is not to enforce them on others.
In Dennis Richardson we had a true and decent public servant, and that takes all kinds of courage.