‘You look up and your name is up on the big board, right? It’s like, you know, the Jumbotron for congressmen and congresswomen’
The congressional freshman class of 2019 is the largest in decades, observed Judy Woodruff during PBS NewsHour, and with them comes a change in party leadership, as well as generational and demographic shifts.
And, she might have added, a sense of humor, which certainly can’t hurt the congressional approval ratings.
Woodruff introduced PBS correspondent Lisa Desjardins, who was tasked with tracking the rounds of two newly elected members of Congress: Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia’s 5th district including Rappahannock, and Democrat Rep. Abigail Spanberger, of the adjacent 7th district.
Whereas both lawmakers previously worked in U.S. intelligence fields, the similarities stop there. PBS followed the pair as they navigated the hallowed halls of Congress during their first days in office, the longest partial federal government shutdown in U.S. history looming as the backdrop.
“Together, they literally form the center of a purple state,” Desjardins observed of the two Virginia districts and their representatives — the former Air Force intelligence officer Riggleman, like the onetime CIA operative Spanberger, new to public office.
“They have everything to learn, including how to get from their offices to the House chamber for votes,” PBS noted. “Add to this, they are taking office in the middle of a government shutdown, and immediately faced votes on whether to back the Democrats’ bill to reopen most of government without funding a border wall.”
So, she asked Riggleman, describe the atmosphere.
“I think it’s like — it’s like a exhilaration wrapped in chaos, right, with a lot of spicy mustard,” he answered. “That’s pretty much what it’s like.”
Not the typical reply perhaps from an elected representative, the Republican going on to tell PBS viewers that he believes President Trump is correct in pushing for his border wall money — for now.
“It’s a tough one,” Riggleman admitted. “I was elected to make tough votes, so I made it.”
He then added some insight, saying both his Republican party and Democrats are missing something in the border wall debate:
“I believe if we can change some of the language and verbiage from just ‘build the wall’ to comprehensive border security, you know, with physical barriers, with looking at defensive depth, I actually think something could get done.”
Spanberger agreed on the need for progress, especially by a congressional body with a public disapproval rating fluctuating around 80 percent.
“I can speak to the fact that my district wants us to stop this,” said the congresswoman who represents all of Culpeper County. “My district wants us to get the government functioning. My district wants to not see disagreement after disagreement and fight after fight. I think both sides need to come to the table and need to say, what’s the goal? Because I think from my perspective that’s the challenge. I have voters in my district saying, you know, what’s happening?”
Riggleman, as he often does during his public appearances — including while waiting for White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to arrive to a Warrenton campaign event last fall, when he grabbed the microphone and like a standup comic delivered hilarious one-liners to a packed house — inserted humor into the equation when asked to describe casting his first-ever congressional vote.
For many PBS viewers it was their first actual glimpse of a congressman widely mocked as the “Bigfoot erotica” candidate during the 2018 campaign, including in more than one skit on “Saturday Night Live.” All of which an unflappable Riggleman took in stride.
“You put your voting card in, but the first vote, like, wait a second, you look up and your name is up on the big board, right?” he said. “It’s like, you know, the Jumbotron for congressmen and congresswomen.”
“And you get goose bumps,” he added, turning serious again. “Like I have 730,000 people who are relying on me right now to represent them. And some are going to agree, some are not going to agree. But that vote means something.”
Riggleman alluded to his independence, also done frequently during his campaigning, saying there would certainly be times when he would vote for what is best for his Virginia district and not his national party.
“I honestly believe there are people here that haven’t been changed by D.C.,” he told PBS. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of them. I would hope that, if I feel like I’m being changed, I would walk away.”
The next year, PBS inserted, will show what Riggleman and Spanberger are able to “change and if Washington changes them.”
The end of every good story has a punchline, of course, this one captured by the PBS cameras as Riggleman was testing his office phone for the very first time, announcing into the handset: “Oh, yes, Congressman Riggleman here, yes. Pepperoni pizza, please.”