Some people can’t figure out Rep. Denver Riggleman.
They say he’s too far to the left, too far to the right or too libertarian. He votes with President Donald Trump a lot, but sometimes he votes against the president’s wishes. What’s up with him being in the House Freedom Caucus? Why did he officiate a gay wedding?
Anyone who thought Riggleman was just your ordinary politician hasn’t been paying attention when the distiller from Nelson County bigfooted into Virginia politics last year.
“There is nobody who can accuse me of hiding anything,” Riggleman said while sitting back in a chair at his office in Washington, D.C. “And you know, that has gotten me in trouble sometimes.”
He’s lost friends over his politics, but he’s gained some, too. Even for a 49-year-old whiskey distiller who used to hunt terrorists and often can be found with a smile on his face, getting knocked from all sides sometimes takes a toll on him.
“This first year has been one of the most brutal learning experiences of my life,” Riggleman said.
Riggleman, who represents an expansive swath of central Virginia, describes himself as a conservative “with a pretty mean libertarian streak.” He can be the most conservative member of the party and other times quite liberal, especially with civil liberties. Sometimes his positions are at odds with the party and conservative base.
His views have created some divisions among Republicans back home. But at a time when the Republican Party is playing defense, Riggleman and those who gravitate toward him believe his brand of politics represents the future of the party.
“I knew there’d be some pushback on some of these things, but I thought people would be like, ‘Listen, this is a freedom guy, and he cares that everybody can individually make their own decisions and believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and equal protection before the law,’ ” Riggleman said. “I thought they’d come around on that.”
Riggleman’s mother provided a lot to him. She gave him his height: She’s 4 foot 11, and he’s 5 foot 7. She’s “tough as a pine nut” and worked hard through challenging circumstances.
Riggleman grew up in Manassas. His teen father left when Riggleman was 2 years old and his sister was less than 2 months old.
His mother moved her children back in with her parents. She worked at a car dealership and was a server at a restaurant.
“One Thanksgiving, to make us feel like we were doing well, she covered a cardboard box with a sheet and pretended it was a table,” Riggleman said.
A few years later, his mother remarried and together they had four more children. Her years of driving a school bus physically injured her, forcing her to go to Pennsylvania to get treatment with Medicare because of her inability to access health care in Virginia.
Denver and Christine Riggleman married in 1989 when they were both 19 years old and moved into her parents’ basement. Three years later, Christine got pregnant. In need of health insurance, Riggleman enlisted in the Air Force.
After three years, he won an Air Force Scholarship to attend the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he deployed as part of the first bombing raids over Afghanistan. He left the military in 2003.
He worked as an Air Force contractor for a few years before he co-founded Analyst Warehouse, a contracting company specializing in counterterrorism and critical infrastructure analysis.
“We were able to do very good work and excel and explode in a very short time because of our work ethic,” said Thaddeus Shaw, who co-founded the company with Riggleman.
Riggleman — a white man — and Shaw — a black man who grew up in a black neighborhood and went to a historically black college — grew personally from working together.
“We shared plenty of stories about government-subsidized food and turning it into magic and how we learned how to hustle and be our only advocate and carve out our own space to succeed,” Shaw said.
Riggleman said that period — beginning with his military service — taught him a lot about people because he got exposed to all races, religions and sexual orientations.
“I try to judge each person individually and not as a group,” Riggleman said. “I don’t care what you worship. If you’re a good person, you’re a good person.”
‘Politics chose me’
Riggleman is usually behind the bar when he’s working at the distillery run by his wife. But at Beale’s Brewery in Bedford County one afternoon, he sat on the other side to ask about the owner’s troubles with the trade war as well as provide a little more background about himself.
“I did not choose politics, politics chose me,” Riggleman said. “I wasn’t involved with the government, the government got involved with me.”
A company acquired Analyst Warehouse in 2012, and a couple of years later, Riggleman and his wife opened Silverback Distillery in mountainous Afton. The bureaucratic roadblocks and red tape for things like outdoor lighting was maddening. At one point, Dominion Energy had a natural gas pipeline mapped through the distillery’s property.
This first motivated Riggleman to run for governor in 2017 as a candidate who would stand up to special interests and an intrusive government. The endeavor lasted only three months.
Then in late May 2018 freshman Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham, unexpectedly announced he was an alcoholic and would not seek reelection. The news triggered a hastily organized nomination event, which Riggleman won by one vote.
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He defeated Democrat Leslie Cockburn a year ago in a competitive race. There was a bizarre moment that captured national attention when the Cockburn campaign tried to attack Riggleman for being a “devotee of Bigfoot erotica.” Riggleman once wrote a satirical book about Bigfoot as part of a joke among friends. It wasn’t published, but he put a chapter on the internet.
When Riggleman returns to the district to meet with constituents, he sees reminders of what drew him to politics.
“When they come to me and they need help, I see that they feel powerless just like I did,” Riggleman said.
He talked to a man recently who owns a shop in Amherst County that makes hunting bows, and the man told Riggleman how the Chinese stole his patents. Riggleman said Silverback experienced something similar, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills to protect the company’s trademarks.
“When you have that knowledge of business, creating businesses, meeting payroll, signing the front and back of paychecks, you understand where people are coming from,” Riggleman said. “I’ve lived in the real world.”
“We lubricate politics here,” Riggleman said, laughing at the assortment of Silverback bottles on a table. “You want a mule?”
Riggleman is the gregarious guy you want to have a beer — or whiskey — with. That’s made him easy to work with, which has helped him navigate his first year in the House of Representatives.
“Denver has a knack for getting along with Democrats without sacrificing his conservative beliefs and principles,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania who is also a freshman. “This makes him a good conduit between the parties. It’s his larger-than-life personality that allows him to float between the Democrats and Republicans.”
Rep. Drew Ferguson, a Republican from Georgia and the chief deputy whip, quickly identified him as someone who would be a valuable part of the whip team.
“He’s been able to reach across the broad spectrum of members, both Republican and Democrat, and build trusting relationships here quickly,” said Ferguson, who mentors Riggleman.
For someone whose job it is to gather votes in favor of the Republican position, he doesn’t always stick with the party himself.
Riggleman said one of the toughest votes he took was breaking from the party and joining seven other Republicans in a symbolic vote to condemn the Trump administration’s support for invalidating the 2010 health care law in its entirety.
“Preexisting conditions is something I’ve personally had issues with, and it’s something I think we need to protect,” Riggleman said.
He voted against this summer’s two-year budget deal — even though Trump urged Republicans to back it.
He’s also known for having a specialty in technology, electronic warfare and military intelligence. His knowledge has been useful in hearings of the House Financial Services, which he sits on, when questioning people from the Federal Reserve or technology companies.
“The very things I went through as a child, and what I’ve done as an independent human being, I apply those lessons learned to what I’m doing now,” Riggleman said. “Some of them are things I’m personal about, like drug addiction, poverty, rural housing, ease of loans for those in less fortunate circumstances.”
Wanting to see farmers succeed, he worked on getting Virginia included in a federal crop insurance program for industrial hemp.
“When he talks about central Virginia and representing his district, he does it with a passion,” Ferguson said. “I hope folks back home see that. He really wants to see fellow Virginians do well. He’s the real deal.”
One of Riggleman’s priorities has been fighting the opioid scourge, which has hit his largely rural district hard, including his family. His cousin died from a heroin overdose over the summer. He joined the newly formed Freshman Working Group on Addiction, which meets regularly to seek solutions.
“Denver’s interested in getting things done, and I’m interested in getting things done,” said Rep. David Trone, a Democrat from Maryland who has worked with Riggleman on various pieces of legislation. “He’s been a leader on the Republican side.”
‘Battlefield of ideas’
The thing about being as proudly independent as Riggleman is that sometimes people get upset when something shockingly abnormal happens.
Something like a conservative Republican officiating a same-sex wedding.
When Riggleman wed two men who volunteered for his campaign last year, it sent ripples through local Republican circles. Some thought it was cool. Others were fine with it, but they wondered what the heck he was thinking doing something that would upset the social conservatives.
“I’m a religious liberty guy, and I think that’s why I’ll anger some people because I always will err to liberty,” Riggleman said. “I despise anybody telling me what I have to do in a government way, and I think the true Republican nature is making sure that individual liberty is valued above all else, but also religious liberty, civil liberty. I think I’ve been very honest about those views.”
Some social conservatives — who had favored the Republican candidate Riggleman narrowly defeated in the nomination contest — set to work criticizing him on social media and blogs and launching censure efforts across the district.
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“If you think I care, or you think I’m going to kowtow or you think I’m going to crawl on my hands and knees so some blogs like me or a couple committee members, people have another thing coming,” Riggleman fired back on a radio program with John Fredericks, a Trump supporter who has backed gay marriage for decades.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. even waded into the debate, endorsing Riggleman amid the blowback, saying party activists were “attempting to exclude you and others because of social issues. I was told they are assuming that because you officiated a gay marriage recently, that you are not socially conservative.”
Riggleman’s been talking a lot these days about Republicans needing to be a “big tent” party if they want to survive.
Tanner Hirschfeld, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the University of Virginia, said Riggleman has broad support among young Republicans, which is important in growing the party.
“Young Republicans see people in our party so up in arms and angry about Denver officiating a wedding of two supporters who happen to be of the same sex,” Hirschfeld said. “It just shows a lot of people in our party are out of touch and really don’t have the best interest of the party at hand and care more about being ideologues than expanding the party.”
Bob Good, an athletics official at Liberty University, emerged with a primary challenge against Riggleman because he “betrayed the trust of the Republican conservative base.” Issues on his campaign materials include opposing abortion, supporting gun rights, securing the border and “defending traditional marriage.”
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“We all could have a representative in the 5th District who reflects the values of the 5th District,” he said at his campaign kickoff last month in Bedford County.
Virgil Goode, the Democrat-turned-Republican who used to represent the same congressional district, encouraged the people to be proud of their conservative values.
“When Obama was running as president, he criticized me and he criticized probably everyone in this room. He said we believe in God, guns and the Bible,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s a great team to be traveling with. We have someone with the Republican label in Congress now from the 5th District, but I must say he’s [Riggleman’s] been a disappointment in my book on a number of issues.”
Goode hammered Riggleman on the issue of immigration, saying Riggleman’s support for foreign workers can eventually lead to increased legal immigration, and those people will vote for Democrats.
Riggleman is tough on border security, but he has supported legislation to increase visas allowing foreign workers to come to the United States legally and work for several months as well as guest visas for construction workers. Riggleman said a common complaint he hears from businesses across his district is the labor shortage and the owners’ requests for more foreign workers.
“They need to actually go out to the district, see what’s happening for themselves,” Riggleman said about his critics.
Riggleman said he has 740,000 people he has to represent, and he has to represent the entire district the best he can.
“What’s the worst they can do to me?” Riggleman said. “Send me back to my distillery.”
For those who can’t figure out Riggleman, he said he’s in plain view.
“People are looking for somebody who doesn’t look at this as a career, they’re looking for somebody who wants to serve, and will say how it is,” Riggleman said. “People don’t think there are politicians out there that are saying what’s really on their minds. I’m a little different in that I think that we really need to fight on the battlefield of ideas.”