It wouldn’t be untrue to call Denver Riggleman “the accidental congressman.”
After all, a year ago at this time, the Nelson County distillery owner was hard at work growing his business, Silverback Distillery, with his short-lived run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2017 a distant memory. Tom Garrett, the freshman Republican representing the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia, had announced he would seek a second term in the House of Representatives, and there was no inter-party challenge.
But then things got a little weird.
As rumors of staff turmoil and an investigation of his office by the House Ethics Committee swirled, Garrett held a news conference to reassert his candidacy for re-election. A couple of days later, at another news conference, he recanted, saying he would not run for a second term and was entering treatment for alcoholism.
Fifth District GOP leaders were scrambling to find a candidate to hold the office against a well-funded Democratic challenger, and it was too late for a primary or district convention. So they scheduled a meeting of all the county chairmen at Nelson County High School in June 2018 to interview applicants and vote on who would be their standard-bearer.
Two candidates emerged: Riggleman and Forest resident Cynthia Dunbar. Dunbar, though the resident of another district, employed a little-used party rule that enabled her to seek to represent a district other than the one in which she lived. The ex-Liberty University law professor was a darling of the religious right, though she’d lost a bruising battle to Del. Ben Cline in the Sixth District for the right to run to replace retiring Bob Goodlatte.
At the end of a long day in Lovingston, Riggleman emerged as the replacement candidate. He went on to defeat Democrat Leslie Cockburn by a comfortable margin in November. (The district is the largest in Virginia, stretching from the North Carolina state line to Fauquier County in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.)
Since taking office in January, Riggleman has set out to learn about his new job and his district. “We’re finding out the local constituent issues hold much more weight than these overarching [national] issues,” he told The Daily Progress of Charlottesville earlier this month. “You think that you know everything about the district after running a campaign, but what I found out is the learning curve is straight up and perpetual — it never ends and you find out that things are much complex than you could ever imagine.”
A small-government conservative with a bit of a libertarian streak, Riggleman insists he wants his office to be open and available to all his constituents, whether they supported him or not. It’s a goal he’s set for himself, too. He also insists that reaching across the aisle to work with majority Democrats on issues important to the Fifth District is his top priority.
“There are moderate, Constitution-loving Democrats who want to get things done, even though when you see people screaming at each other on the news and on social media you may not think so,” he said. “… [T]here are people on both sides who are trying to get things done.”
Those are the sentiments we want to hear from our elected representatives, especially these days. If Riggleman holds fast to those words and delivers, he’ll do well by his district … and the nation.