In March of 2017, I attended the Dorchester Conference, a meeting held annually that sets the stage for the Oregon Republican Party throughout the year. Dennis Richardson had just been sworn into office as Secretary of State, a major upset; the first Republican to be elected to executive office in the State of Oregon for nearly 30 years.
Leading up to this moment, my husband Paul and I had endorsed Dennis Richardson for his candidacy. He was running against a favored Democratic opponent, who had risen through the ranks of elected office. Brad Avakian was a worthy political adversary. Along with my husband Paul, our decision to throw our endorsement to a conservative was seen as a betrayal to our community. There was Dennis’ record on LGBTQ issues as a legislator that concerned us. We met with him to discuss this, before offering our endorsement. He had deep personal spiritual beliefs that he held about traditional marriage. We were concerned about that, as we had been the plaintiffs in the case against the State of Oregon that overturned Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. He assured us he would uphold Oregon law for all families, and that the role of Secretary of State wasn’t to legislate on social issues. We took him at his word.
Dennis, like anyone, was multifaceted. He was a man of deep conviction, led by his acceptance into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Mormon Church had fought against the principles of marriage equality, and lead a national campaign to overturn states’ rights, even as the nation had begun to favor same-sex marriage. Dennis was a passionate supporter of his church. But Dennis was also a man of integrity and honor, who knew how to balance his role as an elected official, and the personal beliefs he held as a man of God.
We agreed to meet with Dennis over our shared concern for children confined to a life of uncertainty in Oregon’s foster care system. Dennis had been interested in our story because he knew we had adopted our child from the state’s Department of Human Services’ care. Dennis had also adopted, and his experience galvanized his beliefs that it is our duty to defend those who have no voice, particularly the thousands of children living with other families throughout the state. Dennis asked us to represent him as he made the commitment to our children. His words rang true to me that day, “Our children. They are not nameless and faceless. The responsibility for these children lies with each of us. They are our responsibility. They are Oregon’s children.” Paul and I endorsed Dennis wholeheartedly.
That weekend at Dorchester was a celebration of our family’s endorsement. Dennis had wasted no time in office. He had already begun an audit of DHS, which oversees the foster care system. His audit findings would show a system fraught with mismanagement and abuse; caseworker overload and foster-parent attrition so high, it left our vulnerable population living in hotel rooms with unlicensed state workers because Oregon could not meet the increased demand for safe, loving homes.
Dennis took the podium in a room full of the most conservative Oregonians from all over the state. He talked about his commitment to the values of every Oregon family. He talked about the needed reform for our school systems. He spoke about the need for good families to rescue our foster care children from their vulnerable lives in foster care. Then suddenly, the man of honor did the unbelievable.
I was sitting quietly, and reverently listening to his remarkable speech when he spoke these affirming words: “I could not have won this race without the help of good families. I would like to acknowledge one such family. Please give your applause to Ben West. Ben, please stand.”
The entire room of 500 hundred of the most conservative dignitaries of the Republican Party looked startled, but they stood with our Secretary as the room erupted in a standing ovation. It was a remarkable acknowledgment that my family was a good family, and that day at Dorchester, Dennis showed me the man I came to know him to be. A man who delivered more than he promised. When we shared our endorsement, it was with the hope that Dennis would protect my family’s legal rights, as with any other family. I didn’t expect that he would honor my family and validate us in the way he had that day. He showed me that a person can evolve and transcend their personal beliefs to elevate marginalized families, like mine. I only wanted his assurance that he would protect my family. I didn’t expect to become included in his. That was the remarkable thing about Dennis. When he looked deeply at an issue, he took it to heart and embraced it.
Oregon lost a valiant public servant whose actions extended rights and gave validation to families like ours. The LGBTQ community lost an ally on February 26th. Surrounded by family and friends, he offered his soul up to God and gave his last earthly breath. Oregon will miss you, Dennis. God bless you.