Rep. Scott Rigell: Maverick GOP freshman in the eye of a political storm

Obama is hitting Virginia Beach, Va., Thursday for a reason: It's one of the hottest political ad markets in the country. Its congressman, Scott Rigell, is out to change Washington's 'toxic mix of partisanship, no facts, weak ideas.'

Steve Helber/AP/File
Reps. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia (second from l.), Buck McKeon (R) of Calif. (l.), and Rob Whittman (R) of Virginia observe operations aboard the Amphibious Assault Ship USS Wasp off the coast of Jacksonville, N.C., in this Feb. 4 file photo.

When President Obama touches down in Virginia Beach, Va., Thursday morning, he’ll be crossing electoral ground that is both well-traveled and crucial in the race for the White House.

When Mitt Romney unveiled his vice presidential nominee, he did so just down the road in Norfolk, Va., where Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin walked down the ramp of the USS Wisconsin at an early-morning rally last month. Mr. Obama, for his part, is making his fourth trip to the area since June – on a par with his campaign travel to traditional campaign hot spots such as Miami and Columbus, Ohio.

The Norfolk media market, home to freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R), has seen more than 21,000 political ads between April and early September, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, making it the seventh-hottest ad-buying destination for Obama and Mr. Romney in the entire country.

Amid the political cyclone of being in a battleground district of a battleground state in a close presidential election, Congressman Rigell is worth watching both for what he’s tried to do during his first term in Congress and what he and several dozen like-minded colleagues might achieve in the future.

Elected on the tea party wave of 2010 that brought many hard-line conservatives to Washington, Rigell has proved to be distinctly undoctrinaire. He was one of only two House Republicans to vote against criminal impeachment charges for Attorney General Eric Holder and has renounced a pledge to never raise taxes that is nearly a writ of faith in the GOP. He has taken his own party to task in front of party leadership – among them fellow Virginian and House majority leader Eric Cantor – for a light congressional work schedule he criticizes as short-circuiting one of Congress’s bottom-line responsibilities: passing the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government every year.

But just as important, he and some two dozen lawmakers in the House and Senate are also trying to make Congress work. Whether the "Fix Congress Now" caucus that Rigell co-founded can break the gridlock in Washington is still an open question. 

It’s not hard to build the case that Rigell is howling in the wilderness. He’s a backbencher who has promised to serve no more than four terms in office. There’s a shot that he could even be ousted by a talented challenger, venture capitalist-turned-education entrepreneur Paul Hirschbiel (D), before he reaches a sophomore term.

But from where Rigell sits, he sees no choice but to try.

Americans “know that our country is at great risk unless we find a way to find common ground in sound legislation that’s actually enacted,” Rigell says. “This paralysis we’re in, this toxic mix of partisanship, no facts, weak ideas, is – the Republic can’t stand this.” 
Before 2009, Rigell was a successful businessman with only a marginal  interest in politics. He built his auto dealerships and real estate holdings in the Hampton Roads region into a small fortune. He's the 29th richest member of Congress, with a net worth of more than $10 million.

But fearing for a nation in dire fiscal straits, Rigell in 2010 threw himself into a crowded GOP primary in Virginia’s Second Congressional District. Despite having donated money to then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 – a move some thought would be a showstopper in a GOP Virginia primary – he won, riding the Republican wave (and a cool $2 million of his own funds) into the House over freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D).

He hasn’t been tapped as a rising star by the GOP’s leadership and doesn’t have any sweeping legislative achievements. He’s a low-key member with a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, the political lifeblood of a member from a district studded with military installations, but he hasn’t been at the forefront of Washington’s most high-profile political fights.

But many who have met Rigell say he has a particular skill that many politicos claim to posses: He not only listens, but he actually hears what people say.
Quentin Kidd, a professor of politics at Christopher Newport University in Virginia Beach, sidled up to Rigell at a Boy Scout event and introduced himself as a new constituent. When Mr. Kidd mentioned where he lived, Rigell told him, “ ‘I need to get over there and learn the issues and meet people.’ I appreciated that because a lot of people would act like they already knew a good part of the district.... I think that’s his character," Kidd said.

And when what Rigell hears doesn’t make sense, he goes after the facts.

Undecided on a politically explosive vote to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress, Rigell did something that’s all but unheard of on Capitol Hill: He invited Democratic staff wonks to his office to argue their case. Pitch me, he said. In the end, Rigell was one of two Republicans to vote on June 29 against the criminal contempt charge, while voting with his GOP colleagues in favor of a civil contempt charge.

Rigell believes the attorney general should be replaced, as he made clear in a letter to constituents after the vote.

But “if Congress can obtain the documents through a civil contempt citation,” Rigell wrote, “then why immediately choose the sanction of last resort: criminal contempt?”

That willingness to go his own way has won Rigell respect from his peers.

“I don’t expect a freshman to expect to do all this and especially a freshman from Eric Cantor’s own state,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee. “He’s extraordinarily brave to deviate an inch from party doctrine.”
Facts, members of Congress like to say, are stubborn things. And American disdain for Congress is a fact. The legislative branch’s approval rating verges on single digits. The 112th Congress is, statistically, the least-productive session since World War II. underperforming even the the infamous “do-nothing” Congress reviled by President Harry Truman.

About midway through his first term, Rigell noted that his were constituents expressing “fear, angst, and anger” about Congress. “And so I went, as best as I could tell, to the root of the problem," he said.

Rigell approached Representative Cooper with what one of the last Blue Dog Democrats described as a “very inquiring mind and a distressed conscience.” After adding Rep. Reid Ribble (R) of Wisconsin and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D) of Oregon to the mix, the Fix Congress Now caucus was ready to roll. The caucus, now supported by some dozen members, has a single signature piece of legislation: no budget, no pay.

The concept is simple: If Congress fails to pass a budget and all 12 appropriations bills by Oct. 1 of each year, legislators go without pay until they’ve achieved passage of every bill. Lawmakers can’t recoup lost pay, either.

The bill is far short of becoming law: It has at least 77 House co-sponsors. A Senate version is sponsored by several Republicans, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, a pragmatic lawmaker who stepped down from his party’s leadership last year to free himself for more bipartisan problem-solving.

The group also aims to “end careerism in public service by beginning the public discourse on term limits.”

But at the urging of Rigell, the group also aims to make a few changes that don’t require legislation by changing how members of Congress act. Rigell, for instance, always refers to the president as "President Obama," never as “Obama.”

“This is foundational to me because we respect the office,” Rigell says. “That basic civility in my view is part of a thread that holds us together, the glue that holds us together.”

That also means he doesn’t use the term “Obamacare” to refer to the president’s signature health-care reform law. It's pejorative, he says, and doesn't respect the facts.

“If I’m trying to move someone in this direction, I want a debate on the president’s health-care plan on the merits on the plan or the lack of merit of the plan. I don’t want someone immediately thinking, incorrectly so, that it has something personal to do with the president,” Rigell says, “because it doesn’t.”

Finally, Rigell’s urges members to stop questioning the motives of those with whom they disagree.

Rigell believes Obama wakes up every morning wanting to put more Americans back to work, but the congressman does “question his wisdom, his judgment” on actually getting people employed. 

“Eighteen thousand jobs are being held up by President Obama because he has a full moratorium on coastal Virginia energy,” Rigell says, referring to drilling off the coast of his district, which runs from the Maryland to North Carolina borders. “I don’t question that [Obama] desires to create jobs, but I do strongly object to and wish he would pivot off of this.”

Removing the rhetorical brass knuckles has political costs, however. Among the most conservative partisans, “If you start speaking this way, their antennas go up and they’re, like, ‘Wait, are you really conservative? Because you’re not using the term Obamacare.’ I say, look, civility is not weakness,” Rigell says. “My voting record reflects this.”

Two votes highlight the tight line Rigell is trying to walk in the current Congress. The first is his approval of the House budget championed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan – a budget Democrats lambast as slashing spending for the neediest with no corresponding hit to the wealthy or the Pentagon.

The second is his vote for a budget offered by the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), featuring more draconian spending cuts than Ryan’s plan.

How can someone espousing civility and fixing Congress vote for something so divisive? America's financial situation, Rigell says, requires it.

“I would submit as an entrepreneur that the very act of reconciling revenues and expenses is in and of itself an act of job creation,” Rigell says. He's proud that his party had "the courage to grab the third rail of politics," Rigell says, referring to the Ryan budget’s bid to reform entitlement programs like Medicare. It irks him that Democrats opted to use Medicare as an election issue rather than trying to shore up its long-term finances.

He voted against a bipartisan debt-reduction plan, based on the recommendations of president’s debt commission, because it lacked entitlement reform.

But there’s yet another layer to the budget story. Rigell is the only member of Congress to have taken billionaire business magnate Warren Buffett up on his offer to match any donation to reduce the federal debt (He gave 15 percent of his salary in both 2011 and 2012 to the cause.)

When the legendary investor invited Rigell to his Omaha, Neb., offices for a talk in January, the two agreed that the federal government could balance its finances at spending and revenues of about 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Mr. Buffett was a bit higher; Rigell, a little lower, but “as a businessman, I thought, wait a minute, we’ve got common ground there,” Rigell says.

The problem is that the government currently collects under 17 percent of GDP in taxes, he says. And getting from there to 20 percent puts Rigell under the wheels of another big man in the politics of taxing and spending: Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.

Mr. Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is famous in Washington for holding at least 90 percent of congressional Republicans (and a handful of Democrats, besides) to a pledge to never raise taxes. Rigell, who signed the pledge when running for office in 2009, now disavows it. He turned on the pledge after realizing that closing tax expenditures (or tax breaks) without corresponding decreases in government spending counted as violating the pledge.

“The agreement itself, with some degree of irony, prevents the very meaningful tax reform that we all seek,” Rigell says. In fact, about half of the candidates in the House GOP’s “Young Guns” program, which helps promising newcomers, have eschewed the pledge.

Some voters applaud this stand for conservative budget positions, while not drawing a red line on taxes. “I do think he can serve as a model,” says Pat Kelly, an engineer in Norfolk who plans to vote for Rigell. “Getting something done is better than getting nothing done.”

Democrats, however, say that Rigell’s talk of civility and bipartisanship is just talk.

“There’s nothing in the vote record that says ‘moderate,’ ” says Jesse Ferguson, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted Rigell for an upset.

Challenger Hirschbiel, a long-time friend of Virginia’s perennially popular Sen. Mark Warner (D), says he was drawn into the race because of his belief in the power of investment in fields like education, infrastructure, and research and development, slated for sharp cuts under the Ryan or RSC plans. 

“It’s not just that they [the House] were getting nothing done because of partisanship,” Mr. Hirschbiel says. “It’s also because what the House was doing. The Ryan budget, I believe, is antithetical to the future of America – at least a strong economic future, particularly on education.”

Whether Virginia’s second district sends Rigell back for a second term will depend on factors such as fundraising and voter turnout. Hirschbiel, particularly, needs the Obama campaign’s efforts to drive voters to the polls, Professor Kidd says.

The race could also come down to who can win the sweat equity battle of old-fashioned, grip-and-grin politics. That’s where Rigell shines.

“Scott is also as good a retail politician as I’ve ever known,” says Joel Rubin, a political analyst in the Tidewater area with deep ties to Democrats. “He came out of the car business, where you’ve got to make relationships with customers and treat everybody like your friend."

In a July town hall meeting in Norfolk, Navy veteran Mark Stets, whose son was killed in Pakistan, unloaded on three high-profile GOP senators over Washington's failure to head off military spending cuts at year's end.

“My son didn’t die for the crap that you people are doing in D.C.,” he said. “Do you understand me?” The senators winced. But he offered a much different view of his freshman congressman, sitting nearby.
“He sells cars and cars are full of plastic these days,” he said. But, pointing toward Rigell, he added: “There is no plastic on that man.”

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