On February 26, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson died of brain cancer. As a reporter, I always felt a kind of endearing relationship with this man, his smiling face greeting me whenever I entered my happy place: the campaign finance reports section of the Secretary of State website. This isn’t to say I’m ecstatic about Koch Brother cash going to our state’s Republicans or pharmaceutical money supporting our Democrats, but I’m comforted to know that we’re at least still permitted to monitor the corruption. Secretary Richardson was, of course, required to disclose this information, but his upholding of our democratic processes seemed to transcend his requirement to do so.
As a Republican, he stood against the false GOP talking point of voter fraud plaguing the nation, and resisted his own party’s attempts to suppress votes to gain power. His counterparts in other states ran with this notion, and it might be argued that some were able to sway elections with their voter I.D. laws and polling place relocations, all while parroting the racist misconception that undocumented immigrants were “invading” and voting in droves. He instead defended our mail-in ballot system, helping Oregon continue to have one of the highest voter turnouts in the country.
Secretary Richardson also differed from some in his party by speaking out on the issue of racial justice.
“Obtaining liberty and justice for all Oregonians requires recognizing and understanding the minority populations who have suffered repression, discrimination and persecution throughout our history,” wrote Richardson in a 2018 op-ed for The Oregonian, requesting that we all see “Black in Oregon” at the State Archives, an exhibit detailing the lives of our state’s black pioneers. He stated in an interview with OPB that he came to this realization late in life, after finally understanding how white privilege permeates American society.
Secretary Richardson also held opinions that were flat out harmful. Due to his religious beliefs, he viewed homosexuality as immoral, as was reflected in some of his votes as an Oregon legislator. In a 2007 Oregon House session, he went so far as to channel Anita Bryant and repeat the false notion that gay men were statistically more likely to abuse children. In the aforementioned OPB interview, Richardson attempted to counterbalance his views on homosexuality by saying, “but it doesn’t change the humanity or the acceptance I have for people to make their own choices about such important and so personal of a nature.” The kind of rhetoric Richardson has used toward our LGBTQ neighbors has at times led to their assault and murder; this fact is without question, regardless of Richardson’s professed good will toward all people. He also stood firmly against women’s right to choose.
As a person who identifies as progressive, my feelings toward Richardson’s memory are complicated. Would I be so quick to praise the man’s positive aspects if I was one of the women or LGBTQ people put at risk by his beliefs? I don’t have an answer, but I feel that it’s an important question to ask. Voices from the left have certainly written shining eulogies for conservatives with more blood on their hands, the most recent being John McCain and George Bush Sr. But why?
I can’t speak to the motivation of those liberal columnists, but I have been exploring my own feelings on the matter. Unlike the Trump brand of right-winger, Richardson always seemed to adhere to his principles rather than abandoning them the second they lacked political expediency. It seemed that he was willing to grow and change, and try to see the world from different points of view. His commitment to the principles of American democracy transcended party loyalty. I truly believe that he cared about people more than power. These are not attributes that I normally associate with the modern Republican, but I wish they were.
I can envision some right-wing internet jerk reading this and dismissing it as a display of “virtue signaling,” a common arrow fired from the MAGA quiver of bad faith debate, meaning one is pretending to be a decent person. And that’s just it, I’m tired of being engaged in bad faith in a political environment where more value is placed on destroying one’s opponent than engaging from a principled standpoint.
Maybe those of us on the left genuinely desire a reason to like our political opponents, or maybe we just want to return to the halcyon days when we could have a discussion without Republicans screaming “Venezuela!” over and over before stomping away victoriously. When political figures like Dennis Richardson pass away, it’s a stark reminder that those days are seemingly over. We can only hope that some of his fellow Republicans look to his memory as a guide.
Commentary by Jay Sharpe