‘This is such a massive responsibility and an incredible honor’
No sooner did Denver Riggleman become Rep.-elect of Virginia’s 5th congressional district including Rappahannock County and he was summoned with fellow members of the freshman class of the 116th U.S. Congress to weeks of orientation in the Cannon House Office Building.
“I’ve not stopped since the day after the election,” says the Republican in a telephone interview from Capitol Hill.
“Twelve to 14 hours a day,” he describes it. “But there’s the dinners, and all the good stuff that goes along with this honeymoon period.”
When he’s not been exploring the hallowed halls of Congress, the Manassas-born Riggleman, 48, a U.S. military veteran-turned-distillery owner in Afton, has been watching with intrigue the events unfold surrounding the new Democratic House majority.
He’s particularly following the battle being waged over the selection of the future House speaker: the old guard’s Nancy Pelosi, 78, who became the first-ever woman speaker in 2007, or a more youthful and centrist lawmaker more closely aligned to the blue wave that helped sweep Democrats back into power?
“Did you see what Cortez did, storming Pelosi’s office?” asks Riggleman, referring to incoming New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who this past week marched an army of 200-plus young protesters to Pelosi’s doorstep — steps away from Riggleman’s orientation sessions — demanding concrete action on climate change. More than 50 protesters were arrested.
Riggleman says he understands people’s global warming concerns, but he questions the “techniques” being used by some Democratic newcomers to get their voices heard by the party’s leadership.
“You have to be solemn and respectful of the office you take,” insists the Republican. “I have served my country my entire life . . . and as we start our congressional session we have to take that responsibility and treat it with the respect it deserves.
“This is such a massive responsibility and an incredible honor, and it should be conducted with . . . integrity going forward.”
As Democrats prepare to retake the majority, having just chosen leadership positions, and with the full chamber to elect a speaker Jan. 3, Riggleman says “even the Republican Party seems to be merging” into strategic positions during the ongoing shuffle of power, “understanding we are the minority.”
“I’m willing to work across the aisle,” says the congressman-elect, especially when “fighting for the 5th district” on issues ranging from agriculture to immigration. He said repeatedly in the recent campaign, where he defeated Rappahannock County-based Democrat Leslie Cockburn after capturing more than 53 percent of the vote — 165,476 to 145,685 — that when representing what is best for his constituents he is prepared to march to the beat of his own drum, not any special interests or even his own party.
Riggleman believes “bipartisanship” is extremely important at this early juncture “or nothing will get done, it would be an absolute stonewall on both sides. Even me, and I’m pretty conservative, I don’t want to see us throw bombs at each other.”
With Democrats now re-energized after taking control of the chamber, Riggleman expects the 116th Congress to start at a fast clip: tackling tax cuts set to expire, debating healthcare and immigration legislation, with plenty more on each party’s plate.
“What is the way forward?” he asks. “This is going to be as interesting a session as you can imagine here.”
Riggleman will be sworn into office on Thursday, Jan. 3, filling the seat of Rep. Tom Garrett, a one-term member of the GOP who announced May 28 that he would not seek reelection, citing struggles with alcohol.
He has yet to learn in which of the three House buildings along Independence Avenue his office will be located. “We haven’t had the drawing yet,” he explains.
But even without a desk, Riggleman has kept busy interviewing candidates for what will be a sizable congressional staff.
“I will have a chief of staff on board by the end of next week,” he predicts, referring to just after Thanksgiving.
“We received hundreds of resumes,” he says, many of them Republican leadership staff who are losing positions in the power transfer. “There’s a lot of quality people available; I’ve probably interviewed a dozen people for chief of staff.”
And speaking of titles, Riggleman says “congressman” is just now “sinking in.”
“I feel it every day I walk into the Capitol Building,” he says. “It’s about humility. We are servants [tasked to] do the best job every day, and I promise to do the best I can, to serve transparently and with integrity.”