Joining by phone, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson struggled to participate.
When asked at the beginning of the call if he could hear, Richardson stammered for a couple seconds before a staffer jumped in. He was then silent for 18 minutes.
Gov. Kate Brown, leading a meeting of the State Land Board, asked if he had any thoughts on a property swap with Deschutes County.
Richardson started to talk but couldn’t get the words out. He cleared his throat and stuttered as he told her he felt a cough come on. He again briefly tried to get out a sentence before saying “sorry.”
The meeting moved on.
The scene played out months after the secretary announced his brain tumor, discovered May 21. Since then, the politician has received an outpouring of support, with colleagues characterizing him as tough and determined. Well-wishers continue to email him and his colleagues in the Capitol praise his resiliency.
“I will tell you that my heart and prayers go out to Secretary Richardson and his family,” Brown said in an interview. “He is working really hard to make sure he gets the medical treatment that he needs, and I wish he and his family the best.”
But behind the scenes, speculation has begun to swirl through the Capitol Mall about how far along Richardson’s cancer is and how severe are the effects.
Richardson and his office have withheld that information. Richardson’s staff has refused to shed more light on his condition, aside from releasing a few videos where the secretary told the public his health was improving and he was still dedicated to the job.
His staff won’t disclose the type of cancer, the prognosis or what sort of treatment Richardson opted for. Richardson and his staff have repeatedly said they will not answer questions about his health.
It’s a change in philosophy for the public official who has advocated for transparency throughout his career.
Following the Aug. 14 State Land Board meeting, questions about Richardson’s health increased. In a video of the meeting, Richardson said he telephoned in due to a contagious illness.
“It was clear that Secretary Richardson was sick,” Brown said. “I think that was very clear. I trust that he is getting the medical care and attention that he needs.”
Outside of the 24-second period where Richardson struggled to voice his thoughts, he was largely silent during the Land Board meeting. At one point he answered “no” and later on seconded a motion.
“It was clear during that last land board meeting that he was experiencing some health issues,” said Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, the third person on the Land Board. “I called him a couple days after that and he told me he was feeling better.”
When asked about Richardson struggling to communicate at the meeting, Chief of Staff Debra Royal said he had a bad cold or bronchitis. She declined to say if that accounted for all of his difficulty.
Read said he didn’t have enough information to ascertain why Richardson struggled to speak, but did notice that he was coughing. Read said he’s known Richardson for a while and was disheartened by the diagnosis.
“From the moment that he announced his brain cancer, I have definitely been concerned about him,” Read said.
Richardson disclosed his illness in an online newsletter June 6. It was small and caught early, he said. He informed the citizenry that he planned to stay on the job through treatment.
On July 26, Richardson again posted a video to social media to update the public on his condition. He said he was feeling better and that the tumor hadn’t grown, but didn’t give further insight into his condition.
“I owe you an update,” Richardson said in the video. “After having my options explained to me by an incredible team of medical professionals at OHSU, I chose to utilize medical advances so that I can serve you as secretary of state.”
Richardson went on to say a follow-up MRI revealed the tumor hadn’t grown, and he was feeling better than he had in weeks.
On Aug. 28, Richardson released an 86-second video updating his condition. While the previous two videos were continuous, this one included five cuts. Richardson said he is working out of the southern Oregon office, which he created in his law office in Central Point. He said he has cut back his travel.
"Like many therapies, the side effects seem worse than the illness," he said. "Other than being tired, please know that I'm doing well as I fight this illness."
The multiple takes were a change, but the message at the heart of the video was consistent: He’s still dedicated to doing the job.
The diagnosis came in advance of an election season with potentially large implications. In late July, polling showed the governor’s race in a dead heat, and Democrats are hoping to get super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Richardson is the state’s top elections official.
Richardson has not publicly said how often his medical condition has pulled him from the office or who runs the show when he’s out. His calendar shows a significant drop in appointments starting in mid-May. Appointments lowered slightly in August.
When asked directly if Richardson’s workload has changed, Royal declined to comment and turned down requests to interview Richardson and declined to answer a list of emailed questions. Requests for interviews sent to Richardson’s personal account went unanswered.
In contrast, the late Sen. John McCain was forthcoming about his tumor, telling the public what sort of cancer he had, what sort of treatment he would undergo and what his prognosis was.
If Richardson were to vacate the office before his term is up, Brown would appoint someone to finish the term, which expires Jan. 2, 2021. Since Richardson is a Republican, state law dictates Brown would have to appoint someone of the same party.
Brown said it is premature to plan for such an event, and she has not discussed potential replacements with her staff. She said that for a vacancy in any statewide office, she would appoint an interim who would not stand for election.
“I think it’s critically important that the Oregon voters elect the next statewide official, whether it’s treasurer or secretary of state,” she said.
A records request seeking emails to or from Richardson that included words such as “cancer” or “tumor” produced 136 pages of emails, none dated earlier than June 6. Richardson’s office deemed one email exempt from disclosure, stating releasing it would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy.
Salem Reporter appealed that decision to the state Justice Department and Richardson then asserted his right to withhold the document. Under Oregon law, his decision to keep the document confidential could only be contested through a court challenge.
Have a story tip? Contact Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.