Tuesday afternoon I learned the unfortunate news that former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and former commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development John Richardson had passed away as the result of a heart attack.
I had the great fortune to know John, though interestingly enough we first encountered one another well before we met in person.
As regular readers will know, I started the online news site Pine Tree Politics — which would eventually turn into this column in 2011 — back in 2008 as a way of staying connected to Maine, while talking about politics.
The 2010 gubernatorial contest would end up providing me great fodder for coverage, and so I worked to break stories, write commentaries and analyze political trends. As I did so the readership grew.
As the candidates for both parties started to pile up, I got a chance to report on them. One of those people was John Richardson, who entered the race in November 2009.
Back in those days, I did a lot of rumormongering about politics — though always very well sourced — and when it became known that his campaign was having trouble with getting clean election money, I was actually the one who broke the story that he was looking to get out of the race, and then later that he was officially dropping out.
Fast forward to 2014 when I moved back to Maine. At that point, as a politically involved person in Maine, I naturally started to bump into him all over the state. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him much, but we chatted here and there.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I would really get to know him, when I took over as the conservative co-host on the WGAN Morning News radio program.
My liberal co-host Ken Altshuler would frequently need a fill in host if he was off at a conference or taking vacation, and soon enough Richardson would become Ken’s primary fill in host.
Through our frequent morning conversations — both on air and especially on the breaks — I soon learned that Richardson was one of the best people involved in Maine politics.
Richardson talked a lot — his loquaciousness was his Persian flaw — and he had an opinion on absolutely everything. What was fascinating, though, was that after long conversations in which we didn’t agree on anything, I would come away with a feeling like we had, in fact, been agreeing the whole time.
That is a special gift, born of honesty, even-handedness, authenticity and a genuine spirit of caring about hearing one another out. To be able to disagree, while laughing the whole time and understanding each other’s perspective, is an almost alien concept today, but something he thrived at.
More importantly, though, he was genuinely interested in learning more from others, especially if they didn’t think like he did. I would occasionally get a phone call or text message from him, asking me what I thought about something, always coming from a real desire to understand something better.
How thirsty is America for that kind of person, right now? How much better would our politics be if it was populated entirely of such people?
We also, I would learn, shared a love of sports, particularly baseball. I remember telling him that my son played in the same travel baseball program that Trejyn Fletcher, Portland native and last year’s second round choice for the St. Louis Cardinals in the MLB draft, played in. It wasn’t long before we were making plans to get together to catch a couple Deering High School baseball games, so we could see him before he went off to the bigs.
He even helped me pick out the name of my fourth child. When I told him, one morning, that I was considering the name Maddie, he was relentless in telling me I had to pick the name, because he has a daughter named Maddie. His lobbying genuinely made me consider the name more than I had, and ultimately we ended up choosing it.
To say that I am surprised that he is no longer with us would be an understatement. He was a very young 62, vital, alive and in good shape.
He leaves a big hole, not only in his family but in public service in Maine and beyond. The true shame of his passing is that he left us at a time when America needs more people like him, not less.
Rest in peace, Mr. Speaker.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.