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Capital Chatter: Remembering Dennis Richardson

The late Secretary of State was friendly, caring and gracious with friends and foes.

It was early on a Friday morning at the IKE Box, a youth-run coffee shop a couple of blocks from the Oregon State Capitol, when a man in a light-colored hoodie and sweatpants approached our table and extended his hand.

I assumed it was panhandler. Then Secretary of State Dennis Richardson pulled back his hood. He was offering a handshake in greeting to me and in introduction to my table partner.

Richardson had been working out at the YMCA next door. He stopped at the IKE Box before heading back to his home-away-from-home, an apartment near the Capitol where he stayed during the week.

This was many months ago, long before he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that took his life on Tuesday.

I have no idea what Richardson bought to eat or drink that morning at the IKE Box. Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, on Wednesday recounted that the early rising Richardson started his days by making a smoothie that "was like a mixture of sunflower seeds, kelp and mud."

Stark, who won the Southern Oregon legislative seat that Richardson relinquished to run for governor, sometimes slept on Richardson's couch while serving on his staff.

Richardson could be something of a contradiction. Humble in person, he was a master self-promotion in his politics. Public-employee unions vilified Republican Richardson for his massive email distributions that touted his cost-cutting philosophy.

That watchdog philosophy extended to his own staff. Stark recalled Richardson's questioning the purchase of a computer mouse that he deemed too expensive.

"This is a man who cared about every single penny that taxpayers put in," Stark told his House colleagues on Wednesday. "He lectured me time and time again not just to focus on state dollars but even federal dollars because that's the taxpayers' dollar as well."

Despite their differences in faith, the two men would end the day with prayer at Richardson's Salem apartment. Richardson prayed for political peace — despite being one of the fiercest political warriors that Democrats had faced — and for individual legislators, by name, as they confronted challenges in their lives.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who is as liberal as Richardson was conservative, fondly recalled being new legislators together.

"We always had pretty big disagreements on policy issues but we had such an honest respect for each other," Greenlick said on the House floor Wednesday.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, respected Richardson's diligence despite their political differences while negotiating the nitty-gritty details of the state budget.

Roblan was co-speaker of the House during 2011-12 when Democrats and Republicans had equal numbers and shared control. Richardson was a House co-chair of the Joint Ways & Means Committee.

"Dennis was not always easy to work with. We didn't always agree on things, but I will tell you there is nobody I respect more than Dennis Richardson. He was an exceedingly moral human being who cared about things deeply," Roblan said.

"It was never about not liking him or not getting along. It was always about he had strong visions about how the world should be, and how people should treat each other, and how things should get done at the state level, and how important it was for family and for communities to take care of themselves as well as the state to be a partner."

Democratic State Treasurer Tobias Read served with Richardson in the House. When both were elected to statewide office in 2016, they became two-thirds of the State Land Board, along with Gov. Kate Brown.

"We benefitted from being able to bounce off of each the ideas of sort of growing into these new roles," Read said.

When he and Richardson lunched together, they rarely discussed political issues.

"We talked more about family and life in politics generally," Read said. "How to balance those things. How to be a good parent and a public servant."

Among my many encounters with Richardson, a couple stand out:

As a newspaper editorial page editor, I arranged to hold our endorsement interview for the 2014 gubernatorial race at an auditorium full of inquisitive students at West Salem High School. Richardson and Democrat John Kitzhaber both liked the idea and enjoyed talking with students, as well as the editorial board.

Despite being political foes, they were at ease with each other. Kitzhaber welcomed having someone to debate after Republican Chris Dudley sought to avoid him during the 2010 campaign for governor.

On the day that Richardson took office as secretary of state, I waited in his office reception area to interview him. His office was noisily packed with family members after the inauguration ceremony — he had nine children and 31 grandchildren — and they were sharing slabs of giant sub sandwiches.

Spotting me sitting in the lobby, Richardson brought me a slice of sandwich.

That was Dennis Richardson the person — friendly, caring and gracious.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.