by Kellen Squire
If I’m going to tell the story of Denver Riggleman, it has to go back to the last time I sat down and cried.
A few years ago, I applied to the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program at the University of Virginia. My eventual goal was to teach – to be a nursing professor and clinician part-time, but hopefully to make enough money so I could pay the mortgage and volunteer with a free/travel clinic the other half the time. But no FNP program is easy to get into, much less at an institution like UVA. So to prove my mettle for the admissions committee, I signed up to take a Master’s level Pathophysiology class on a non-degree basis. It was the hardest class offered, with an uncompromising professor who was an institution unto herself at the University, and I figured it’d be proof I could hack it in the FNP program.
I quit my job as a part-time school nurse with the Albemarle County Public School system, went back to full-time nights in the emergency department, emptied my savings account, juggled family commitments (e.g., raising kids)… and managed to pull off an “A” in the hardest class I’ve ever had. A 4.0 GPA, the first of my entire life. A shining moment beyond compare.
And then UVA admissions promptly rejected my application.
I’d really let myself get excited. I had great bona fides, I nailed the interview, my entrance essay knocked doors off, the professors there knew me from having worked full-time and juggled being a dad when I was an undergrad. Crap, they’d bounced my daughter, gurgling and bubbly, on their knees while I took tests when I was a second-year. And I worked my ass off and got an “A” in the hardest class in the nursing school. There was no way I could lose.
Problem is, UVA gets the cream of the crop – best of the best, with honors! – so even hitting a home run isn’t good enough sometimes.
As mentioned earlier, I took it really hard.
Eventually, in a semi-depressed fugue, I decided I’d just do a 180-degree turn and do something non-nursing as a primary job, and came up with a really clever idea to take an old horse trailer and turn it into a mobile bar. I planned to restore and polish it into a sort-of English country pub motif, and then rent it and myself as a bartender out to weddings and events and the like. It was a great idea; I dare anyone who knows about weddings in the Charlottesville area to deny it. I found a suitable horse trailer in Fluvanna County, made an offer on it, bought the necessary tools, and then went about getting the permits to get started.
Unfortunately, this is simply not possible in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as our alcohol laws are an unholy combination of seventeenth-century holdovers, mixed with a bit of big-government heavy handedness, and topped with a large helping of bipartisan political corruption and malfeasance. The state officials I contacted, including one of the state commissioners, were very polite, but ultimately shrugged, as there was simply nothing they could do in the face of all that. So I sighed as another hope was dashed, and instead decided one afternoon I’d just take a drive out to Nelson County, down Route 151. Beautiful scenery, great restaurants and craft breweries stretching from Afton to Roseland. One of my favorite drives.
And there I saw a new-ish distillery. Silverback, with a large ape statue out front. I thought, what the hell, and stopped in. I was greeted by a gentleman who was conducting tastings, a stocky guy with a buzz cut, who apologized for his limited offering of samples, noting the restrictive Virginia ABC laws he had to follow. Never one to miss the opportunity for a bitch fest, I immediately launched into my soapbox screed on the BS I’d had to deal with for my own brilliant entrepreneurial idea. This resulted in a volley back about how Silverback had to sell their own product to ABC, and then go to an ABC store and even buy one of their bottles off the shelf to serve in their own distillery!
We traded barbs in that vein a few times, shook hands, and… that was the first time I met Denver Riggleman.
We kept in occasional touch after that. He does, after all, make good bourbon. When I’d go down to Nelson County, he’d be working the tasting room. His wife, Christine, is the manager, much as my wife is one of the administrators in our ER, and we’d joke about them being the boss “at home and at work.” Denver would share stories about politicians (almost inevitably Republican) who would rather side with international conglomerate Diageo than with a Virginia small business, and who absolutely adored the government-run monopoly and sweet, sweet socialist dollars of the Virginia ABC while somehow simultaneously being “principled, small government conservatives.”
This is why I never thought Denver would actually win the Republican nomination for Congress in VA-05 last May. For starters, he’d made plenty of enemies among the GOP establishment (the same establishment which banded together to take down far-right Cynthia Dunbar). The Virginia GOP has one of the strongest remaining #Nevertrump contingents in the country. Sadly, they’re mostly too scared to come out openly, but are more than happy to ruthlessly kneecap people like Cynthia Dunbar, Martha Boneta, and Corey Stewart behind the scenes. Which is fine; the Trumpian wing engages in a tit-for-tat on that, like an organized effort by Dunbar and her allies to try to enlist Democrats to “stop Ben Cline” in VA-06, or the unapologetic leaking and backstabbing they do to anyone who they consider insufficiently toadying (like the way Bryce Reeves went from openly bragging about the NRCC sizing him up to run against Abigail Spanberger, to now flailing and trying desperately to destroy his primary challenger).
But – here we are. Denver burnished his libertarian credentials, particularly when the last ballot in the VA-05 GOP convention came down to abortion. Denver’s (relatively) pro-choice stance was predictably maligned by the Dunbar folks as “appeasing militant sodomites” (I understand a lot of GOP voters “held their nose and voted” for Denver on this issue in the general election). Though he’d faced consistent heat for his stances on eminent domain (vociferously against), marijuana decriminalization (strongly for), and going to war with the Republican establishment (including the Trump/Stewart wing), it was his stance on abortion that almost did him in – and sounded like it would have, if not for a little “strategery” behind the scenes with the voting process.
On reflection, though, I guess it was win-win for the establishment – either they would rid themselves of Denver Riggleman and his trouble causing (I understand one Republican state senator fled his office in Richmond rather than confront him face to face), or they would squish him beneath their bootheel and make him indistinguishable from any of his colleagues.
So that was the question, after Denver Riggleman won election in November, finding he was (sadly) able to coast to victory against the backbreaking and amazing effort of (literally) the best field organization in Virginia history. Was Denver’s libertarian cred real, or was he just a faux, Nick Freitas-style “I don’t want to call myself a Republican and I’ll vote against civil liberties whenever it’s convenient” libertarian? Was he truly going to try and take the mantle of populist reformer and leader of the “liberty movement,” as nobody else in the country (besides maybe Justin Amash) could do with any credibility. Or was he going to be another mindless drone in the ranks of a party whose only defining characteristics (besides a requirement to pledge fealty to a single man) are situational ethics and moral relativism in the name of winning at all costs?
Sadly, I think we now have our answer.
.@SpeakerPelosi wants to cancel the #SOTU2019 citing the Secret Services' need for a physical barrier, technology, and increased personnel. Ironic, isn't the government closed because she is refusing to do the same for our borders? Hypocrisy and partisan politics at its finest.
— Congressman Denver Riggleman (@RepRiggleman) January 17, 2019
If his sudden obsequiousness towards eminent domain- an interesting take for a guy with a giant NO EMINENT DOMAIN FOR DOMINION’S GAIN sign outside his own property- didn’t flag it for you, this tweet surely fits the bill. Look at it. Its purposeful obfuscation of reality, gaslighting us all into making this all totally Nancy Pelosi’s problem- poor, defenseless President Trump and all. Besides, it’s really no big deal to ask the Secret Service to work without pay – for over a month by the time the SOTU would be held – right? That’s got RNC fingerprints all over it. The man showed up in Washington, DC, and they wouldn’t even let him keep control of his own Twitter account.
Look, honestly, it’s not Denver’s fault. Or, well, I should say it’s not entirely his fault. This is the price you have to pay to be a politician in the Republican Party today. You have to give up your own values and morals. You have to agree that ethics and Constitutional norms are strictly situational depending on how they impact Donald Trump personally. And you can never, ever, ever not toe the party line or speak out independently.
I’m sure Denver figured he’d be the exception to the rule.
The Democratic party isn’t perfect, folks- far from it. But take me, a pretty anti-establishment, non-traditional populist- an unholy combination of George Norris, Paul Wellstone, Ann Richards, and Henry Howell. The price I’ll pay for not toeing the party line and raising “kaine” (haha I make pun) is being annoying to party insiders, perhaps resulting in a few VERY SERIOUS op-eds from VERY SERIOUS third-wayist commentators, or probably some sort-of lame whisper campaign of snickering half-assed untruths from folks who feel threatened by someone they can’t control (no, really– mark my words on that). But that’s it. All really stupid, don’t get me wrong, but I come from a profession that’s turned “lateral violence,” the act of “eating your own”, into a science– you gotta wake up early to get a nurse off their game.
This simply isn’t true in the Republican Party. There’s absolutely no room for striving to find common ground or consensus – it’s just obedience, plain and simple. And what the people of your district want means absolutely nothing compared to what President Trump personally demands of you. Anyone who dares to stray will be crushed, ruthlessly- no exceptions.
I know a lot of my friends on the left will be tempted to laugh uproariously at a Republican being crushed beneath the bootheel of party flacks in a way we all saw coming from a hundred miles away – but don’t. It’s not funny. It’s sad. It’s disgusting. It’s frightening. Because it means we’re not dealing with rational actors people whose first concerns are our Commonwealth and our Republic. And if they won’t stand up to the bad actors on their own side, it means the only ones who will have to stand up to them are us. And if they’ll use those sorts of tactics on their own people, you can be damn well sure they’ll use them on us, too- or worse.
As I initially wrote this, just short of two million Americans are about to miss their second paychecks- 800,000 Federal employees and 1.2 million Federal contractors. That’s two million working American families. If my wife or I missed two consecutive pay checks, our finances would be in shambles- and God help us if any minor fiscal catastrophe came up. If this doesn’t illustrate how damningly out of touch the Washington political class is with working Americans, I have no idea what will. I am amazed we didn’t hear people start singing La Marseillaise. But then the shutdown ended- and Mr. Riggleman voted, without complaint, for the same legislation that was not so long ago anathema to him- again, with nary a word about the President’s apparent planned use of eminent domain via an unconstitutional and unacceptable use of our nation’s military.
I guess the bottom line is this: I simply cannot, in good conscience, support any elected official who can sit idly by and let working families suffer for anything, much less to protect the ego of a single man.
Congressman Riggleman has a decision to make. I can understand what the awesome weight of being in the most powerful legislative body in the world can do to someone. Maybe Denver just got blindsided by the full-court press of the Republican establishment, and he’ll shake it off and stand up for the folks in the 5th District before all else.
We’ll just have to wait and see.