The Boar’s Head was selected as the kickoff for incumbent Congressman Denver Riggleman — a sprawling resort with accented colonial charm and a pinch of Stephen King to taste in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Covering this event, I figured it would be like every Republican event I had ever been to — pissed off Medicare recipients in flannel, grandmothers consisting of the only women present, a few frat brothers in their finest Vineyard Vines and/or Brooks Brothers. The whole event would be a collective dress code combination of Foxfield and Redskins Football Tailgate. If you’re really lighting the grassroots on fire, a few homeschoolers will be there to hold monochromatic signs with stereotypical tucked-in polos and jean skirts to match.
But this time … this was different.
Walking in, I definitely saw the Republican faithful listed above in tow, picking over breakfast fare and lining the open bar. But I looked around and saw young people of different genders and ethnicities who were mingling, swapping political war stories, and getting hyped for the Congressman. Some college age, some college grads.
To any Democrat reading this, that may not be a big deal to them — they get diversified young people to show up all the time. But to someone active in GOP politics since he was eight years old, seeing this, to quote Vice President Biden, this was a big f’n deal.
As my colleague Matt Colt Hall was boisterously introducing me to the bigwigs, power players, and fellow-suited friends in the room, I spotted the Congressman. He was dressed in a simple black polo and jeans, and was back-slapping and catching up with others as if it was a
family backyard barbeque. He didn’t seem concerned about not wearing a blazer or tie. He was among the people, and wanted all to know he was one of them.
The event was really kicked off by mild-mannered, perfect-haired Congressman Ben Cline in a bomber jacket. Ben and Denver, you can tell from their interactions, are real buddies, in an Odd Couple type of way — with Ben being Felix to Denver’s Oscar. He gave a rousing
introductory. Ben was fired up, and Ben doesn’t get fired up much. To have an even-tempered Ben Cline giving a full throated introduction of Denver immediately put primary challenger Bob Good’s bogus claims of Denver undermining Ben to rest.
Chief Deputy Whip Drew Ferguson of Georgia, and Denver’s mentor, followed as the second warm-up, heaping southern helpings of praise in a thick Georgian drawl. Now that the crowd was all riled and warmed up, it was Denver Time.
Denver charged onto the stage, beaming from ear to ear — a happy warrior. He soaked in the crowd’s cheers. “Please sit down, please, please. Now, ya notice it took me ten minutes to sit down because that was pretty cool,” he chuckled.
Congressman Denver Riggleman is truly an unbroken bronco — untamed by the right and defiant of the left. Making waves for officiating a gay wedding for friends of his, he gained a primary challenger in Bob Good.
No sweat for Denver. He took the stage to remind his constituents why he can handle the heat and why he will do the right thing for them.
Like an incumbent, he ticked off his accomplishments since taking office and his resume as a military man and small business owner. But like a man, and a humble one at that, he stated that he is not doing this for him. He tossed out that he does not need the job and that he intends to term-limit himself. Denver stressed he is simply there for us, because we put him there. He said that it is his job to serve us and uphold our constitutional rights and concerns.
“By the way, you have a very normal person who’s up here — despite what you’ve heard on Twitter.” The room erupted into laughter. “Young people laugh because they know that social media crap,” Denver smirked. Like the elusive creature and internet meme generator the honey badger, Denver Riggleman does not give a f*ck. He cracked self-deprecating jokes and was blunt about his world in Washington.
He made the audience playfully question if his water on the podium was vodka. He puffed out his chest as he crowed about proudly representing the self-dubbed C.O.T.S. army — “The Coalition of the Sane.” Clearly, here was a guy who was not there to kow-tow to the base and throw out bloody, bigoted, burgundy meat to the crowd.
Denver was there to kick off his re-election bid with a direct play to the Suburban Men and Women who defected from the party; to the
college students who were either a little centrist or libertarian. He was unabashedly going for the average, hard-working voter — damn race, gender, age, or sexual orientation — in the 5th district.
What a radical concept in Virginia’s Republican Party. Denver the Bronco galloped and kicked off stage after bucking the establishment and Republican Party of Virginia rules clear off his back to greet and mingle once again amongst his people — the Coalition of the Sane.
Afterwards, Denver was happy to sit down with me for an exclusive interview. We were ushered into a spare golden yellow event room and we took a seat in an empty row of chairs. It was good to be off our feet.
Michael Allers Jr.: Congressman, thank you.
Denver Riggleman: Thank you.
One thing I noticed … usually when I go to these Republican events, I’m the only young guy. As millennials, you know, if you read the statistics, 17 percent are registered Republican donors. How do we change that?
I think with young people getting involved — I would say if you talk to millennials, because I have three of them, okay — what you’re seeing once they get to the job market, to them it’s about choice. I think if you had a party for millennials that wasn’t Republican and Democrat, just say, the “freedom of choice” party, I think you’d actually have an 80-to-90 percent sign-up. It’s unbelievable the entrepreneurial spirit that I’ve seen from those under the age of 30, and to see them out here today — just seeing them, my heart was full.
I have a daughter who is a general manager for a multimillion-dollar distillery, have another daughter who runs our second [distillery] in Pennsylvania, and have a third daughter who just got her degree to go after terrorists. At least that’s what I wanted her to do [chuckles] but I think that if we could — if we cannot say Republican or Democrat right now and we said “freedom of choice” or conservative party — I think you’d have many more millennials, and the reason is because I think people are tired of the Republican and Democratic tripe from the fringes.
My thing is let’s make sure Republican means Republican and we go back to the Jeffersonian conservative values. If we do that, I think we can bring every millennial, or not every, but I think you can get a larger percent of Republicans if we can redefine what Republican is on the conservative side. I think we’re going to [do that]. I think we can win the millennials especially.
You’re in a District where you have Albemarle-suburban Charlottesville. We’re getting killed in suburbs across the country. We are losing suburban women. The biggest issue statistically to them is actually not abortion, but actually education. What is your plan going forward on education? How do you think Republicans could claim that issue from the Democrats? Because from my experience, the Democrats are the only ones that show up to my classroom and talk about education, and we just say “school choice” and that’s it. We don’t talk about teacher pay, Common Core …
I think people are afraid to talk about things that need to be talked about. I mean, part of it’s like pre-existing conditions, right? So we put in a bill that changed the pre-existing condition protection from the ACA Obamacare over to HIPPA, and people were like, “Oh my gosh!” We need to do that with education. We need to look at actual things that are constructive in education, teacher pay is right up there — a great way to help teacher pay is to make sure our economy is strong enough to support that because I think education is the future. I think we need to go that way.
I’ve gone to southern Virginia, the higher education center down in the Danville area, and they are just doing incredible work with all these [pathways] to junior and four-year colleges. I think [there] needs to be a complete restructuring of education where we look at those who were trying to serve their communities. I think we also have to make sure the trades are balanced and valued just as much as a four-year college, of course, and I think we need to allow more grant programs [and] all that to be available to people going to trade schools.
Also, I think we can come up with a comprehensive plan, and we’re going that way, or the conservative way of looking at it is much better than just saying the government’s going to take care of everything.
[There’s] so much bureaucracy, you don’t even have to raise taxes. You can just slash these positions, right?
Well, you’ve got to be effective with it. And I also think the school administrators need to realize that they are also [stewards] of taxpayer money and need to make better decisions. And I think we have to educate the educators on that there is not an unlimited supply of money. On the flip side though, those who do educate their children need to be treated with utmost respect. We need to make sure that they’re valued in a way that they’ve never been before.
Exactly. If we do bill ourselves as the freedom of choice party, how do you square this with this time of an overarching purity test that, sadly, it’s happening on the left and over on the right, but how do you square the purity contest where my [particular] views on climate change or education or a lot of other social issues might not be in line with a Congressman or an elected official — how am I still welcome in the party? I think that’s the hardest part for young people. They might be fiscally with us, but then socially they might say, “I don’t fully agree.” How do we bring them in?
Truth, facts, and transparency, and I think you have to have people having been in politics willing to just speak truth and give facts and transparency. I’ve come out of a world where I wasn’t a political ideologue. I’m not really at all. Unless you’re talking about the Constitution. We are the world we want to live in, a world — and when you run a company, when you [have] been in the military, you have to make life-and-death decisions — so for me, it’s always been, “Can I compromise with integrity and not compromise with cowardice?”
And that’s something I’ve tried to live in my life. But as far as some of these issues that we’ve already lost on, I think people are afraid that they’re losing power. I don’t think sometimes it’s just ideology. I think you have those in parties on the fringes [that] think they’ve been in control and they’re grasping at the last vestiges of a corrupt system where they thought the people had to listen to them. It’s, “We’re beholden to the committees and not to the people.” I’m not beholden to committees. I’m not beholden to ideologues and I’m not in the hold of the single-issue conservative groups who try to monetize conservativism. I’m here to make sure the people live the life they want to lead, and if people want to meet me on that battlefield, I’m more than happy to do it.
Another issue that’s pretty personal to this District — what happened tragically with Heather Heyer in Charlottesville — when it happened, a lot of our elected officials, Republicans, such as Tom Garrett and others, did not give a strong enough response to white nationalism. How do you, as an elected official and as a Republican, demonstrate that independence in leadership and not be afraid to call those people out for what they are?
I’ve already had issues with white nationalists who cannot stand me and I think a lot of us sometimes judge ourselves by who likes us. If I judge myself by who hates me — basically the white supremacists — I’m doing a good job. I fought against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I was very strong against white supremacy.
As soon as I got into this, because being somebody who knows domestic terrorism, I’m on the subcommittee of the National Security subcommittee for financial services. We track the illicit finance and the statistics for the rise and surge of white nationalism. It is awful, and when you have these low-immorally bankrupt mouth breathers that are rolling through, thinking that somehow they’ve got a grasp of what’s going on, you have the same power dynamic in these groups where they think that power and control of these people is something that they are somehow entitled to.
We have to break the chain of domestic terrorism and political violence. When you look at the statistics, it’s on every spectrum, but people need to realize these people want to argue if it’s on the left or on the right. Domestic terrorism is a definition of somebody who makes it by their political ideals, but we do know on the fascist portion of the spectrum, on the white nationalism, white supremacy portion of the spectrum, there’s a lot more violence going on there.
So we do need to concentrate on making sure that we identify these groups. We tracked these groups and if they’re about to do violence we go after him, and it’s something I enjoy, going after bad actors. So it’s just something that’s in my DNA. We’ve got to make sure that is the Republican party — that we denounce any type of ideology that hates others based on the color of their skin, ethnicity, sexual orientation.
Especially considering our rich history of doing so….
Oh my gosh, we are the party of Lincoln.
You said in there it’s not up to you, it’s up to us — we are the future of the party, and more young millennials are making that run for office. We need to have our own AOCs, right? What are your words of advice for them?
First of all, don’t be a young AOC. I would say, second, when you’re running for office [that] what you say the first time you step on that stage is what people are going to remember and they can always hold it against you. If you believe in something strongly enough and you think you’re representing the will of the people, say it — don’t be afraid, don’t have to remember your lies — be honest, be transparent. Sometimes I think people use politician as a pejorative. The reason I do that is because with social media, with a tribalism of politics, people will say whatever they can to get elected.
Those who are under 30 right now, or 35, ready to serve, I give you this one piece of advice: be yourself. Never back down, but be sure that you don’t have to remember your lies. I’m telling you, transparency goes a long way. And by the way, it hurts to be honest, trust me, I know.