Watch the full debate:
If the final two months of the fiercely contested 5th district congressional race play out like its inaugural debate held Wednesday evening at a jam-packed Little Washington Theatre, there should be few undecided voters sitting on the fence come Election Day.
That’s how far apart Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman are on key issues leading up to Nov. 6 — universal health care and immigration reform to all that swirls around the current occupant of the White House.
“First of all, I think the Affordable Care Act should be put back in place,” the Democrat, a former 60 Minutes producer, told the overflowing and at times raucous crowd, which saw many turned away at the door. “The idea that this is OK, that we have the most dysfunctional [health care] system in the world, and that the attempts at righting that are now being dismantled, has a shocking local effect.”
“First of all, we don’t have the worst health care in the world because I’ve been all around the world,” the Republican, a former Air Force officer and National Security Agency employee, shot back. “So to say that is sort of hyperbole.”
And so it would be throughout the two-hour long forum, moderated by Boston Globe veteran Tom Oliphant and sponsored by Businesses of Rappahannock and the Rappahannock News.
Only in the opening moments of Cockburn and Riggleman butting heads for the very first time (it was only the second time the pair shook hands, the Republican told us beforehand) did the back-and-forth “conversation,” as Oliphant had envisioned it, have its most genial moments.
Like when Riggleman pulled up his pant leg to show the audience, which included several members of the national media, his Bigfoot monogram socks — making light of his years-long intrigue with the giant furry creature that his opponent earlier equated to “Bigfoot erotica,” rendering the Republican the butt of jokes from Rappahannock County to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
But Oliphant brushed Bigfoot aside, steering the candidates, who were seated to his side, towards the substantive issues important to 5th district residents.
“I realize Republican, Democrat and all that, but there is one fascinating characteristic that the two of you share — you’re both rookies,” he pointed out. “And it is unusual to have a race, even in an open seat, where each of the candidates has never done this before.”
At which point he asked both candidates — Cockburn, a resident of Castleton, and Riggleman from Afton straddling Albemarle and Nelson counties — what propelled them to seek public office.
“What happened to me was Donald Trump,” Cockburn replied, “and the fact that we were being represented and continue to be represented by a mini-Trump” — referring to the president and current 5th district congressman Tom Garrett, who announced in May that he was struggling with alcoholism and would not seek reelection. “So with Donald Trump I was really appalled by him, as a woman and as a former journalist.”
Riggleman countered that the reason so many Americans and residents of the 5th district “voted for President Trump is because he was independent, because he didn’t take any bunk from anybody, and he did what he thought he needed to do regardless, and it’s something that’s sort of ingrained in me. I take an oath to the Constitution, for the people of the 5th of the United States of America. That’s what I do.”
Cockburn then interjected, “Wait, let me ask you a question, I’m not clear. Do you support President Trump or not?”
“I do support President Trump,” answered the Republican. When Oliphant sought to ask “why,” and Cockburn simultaneously peppered her opponent with follow-up questions, Riggleman’s share of supporters at the theatre, which included his wife and two of his three daughters, shouted their displeasure.
“No, no, no, I actually think that’s a fair question,” Riggleman assured the audience. “Here’s why I support President Trump. When you look at the tax reform and the tax cuts, and you look at what it’s done to industries, and you look at what’s happening in the fifth district, you see this surge of optimism and hope. I’ve been there. I’ve been everywhere in the fifth district.
“I also support President Trump on so many things when it comes to specifically to economic policy,” he continued, “3.8 percent unemployment, you look at GDP growth, and even in the fifth district since President Trump has been elected you see massive growth in all industries. That is pretty amazing. That is why I support President Trump on those policies.”
And then this unexpected insert into the dialogue.
“Where do I not support President Trump?” Riggleman asked the question. “That’s a real good question right? Thank you for asking . . . Why are we increasing the debt ceiling? Why are we making deals where we’re actually putting the future of our children at risk? So that’s why I might be a little bit different than what you expect [from a Republican], because I’m going to go up there [to Capitol Hill] and have a rational discussion and say what is going on?
“And you can giggle and you can laugh or do whatever you want, but I’ve been running for three months. And I saw in my own [distillery] company an eight-to-ten thousand dollars a month savings where I could actually hire and expand and I can lever my company to hire a lot more people.”
Continuing her reporter’s line of questioning, Cockburn asked why it was that her opponent and his wife were quoted last year in a Richmond Times-Dispatch story as saying “that you want to move your [Virginia] operation to Pennsylvania? And my understanding is that you’ve opened an [distilling] operation in Pennsylvania, and that you’re actually already hiring people to work there. So you’re creating jobs in Pennsylvania.”
Riggleman explained that his entire whisky production is in Virginia “because of the whisky climate here.”
“The reason that Virginia is not a good place for sales is because they have a 54 percent tax per bottle on everything I sell in my distillery. In Pennsylvania it’s 3 to 6 percent. When you talk about expansion, there’s two parts of expansion, there’s sales and production. We have moved to Pennsylvania, thanks Leslie [for the question], because the Trump tax cuts allowed us to. Not only that, we’ve hired more people in Virginia for production specifically. Our gross has gone up about 23 percent month over month since Trump was elected.”
When Oliphant cut him off at that point, to the anger of his supporters in the audience, Riggleman said forcefully, “Oh, I’m not done! I’m not done!” He proceeded to ask Cockburn, “So if you want to talk about baseless accusations, I just want to know out of the four houses you own where you stay the most? And the reason you have 70,000 miles [campaigning] on your car is because that drive from D.C. to the fifth district is a long damn way.”
“I wish I could spend some time in D.C.,” replied Cockburn, taking a swipe at Riggleman having admitted earlier in his campaign that he has spent several days each week on Capitol Hill huddling with lawmakers and other congressional power players.
She then countered that her opponent has owned houses in New Jersey and Texas — “who’s throwing stones?” she asked. “As well as your operation in Pennsylvania.”
“I tell you, you need to work on your sourcing as a journalist, you’re not very good at it,” Riggleman responded. “I think that’s because the military sent me there . . . while serving my country. Not only that, when you’re born and raised in Virginia you come home after fighting for your country. . . . So when you want to talk about fifth district values, I have them, you don’t.”
Turning to the business climate in the sprawling 5th district, which stretches from the border with North Carolina practically to Maryland, both candidates agreed that sufficient jobs exist under the present economy. The problem, they each said, is there’s not enough trained people, as with the construction industry, to fill those jobs.
“We have a superheated economy right now,” said Riggleman. “We can grow infrastructure, we can do the things we need to do.”
There was disagreement, though, when the employment rebound began — was it under Trump, as Riggleman suggested, or at the end of the financial crisis in 2008?
“I don’t think it’s a continuation at all,” Riggleman said to much laughter from the audience.
“I don’t think the Trump administration can take credit for the improvement in jobs that’s been going on gradually since 2009,” opined Cockburn.
Continuing with jobs, Riggleman said the most important industries for the 5th district over the next decade will be technology and agriculture.
“You’re going to see a boom in technology jobs as we go forward, especially in telecommunications and energy,” the Republican predicted. Cockburn disagreed, saying agriculture, tourism and timber are the future of the district.
“That’s why we’re getting so slammed by tariffs,” she said, referring to Trump’s newly orchestrated trade war.
Segueing to immigration reform, Cockburn said: “Our biggest crop is grass in Virginia, and that’s for our cattle. So the agricultural situation is this: if you go to any agricultural association . . . the number one issue for them is agriculture reform. And that’s because who’s milking the cows three times a day? Who’s plucking the chickens? The Virginia Department of Forestry said to me that every single tree in Virginia is planted by an immigrant.”
Riggleman “absolutely” agreed that when it comes to agriculture a labor shortage exists in Virginia, and the most impactful move to help the district’s farmers is to “streamline immigration policy” with less regulation and restrictions, including providing housing for workers.
At the same time, Riggleman said 5th district residents, farmers included, desire a “strong border, a secure border — we want a wall.”
Other issues where the two candidates argued their differences included Medicare-Medicaid, abortion (“I believe that life does begin at heartbeat,” said Riggleman, adding that he is opposed to funding Planned Parenthood), crime and sentencing guidelines, gun control and racism.
While debating the latter, recent GOP charges that Cockburn was a “virulent anti-Semite” came up, based on a book the Democrat co-authored during the 1990’s critical of U.S.-Israeli policy (Cockburn took the opportunity to read on stage an op-ed written this week by a rabbi in Charlottesville about “slander, slurs, and smears” directed at her from Virginia’s Republican party).
Meanwhile, Cockburn learned just minutes before taking the stage Wednesday that the national political polling website FiveThirtyEight put her campaign ahead of Riggleman 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent, which in and of itself is a major accomplishment for a Democrat in a long-held Republican stronghold like the 5th district.
“I feel absolutely ecstatic about that,” she told this newspaper. “I think it reflects our own information about what is going on in this district and it shows that the [Democratic] blue wave is real.”
Riggleman did not appear deterred.
“The campaign starts now,” he explained to the Rappahannock News, promising a “sprint” to the finish line “with blocking and tackling” while clutching “integrity and truth.”