On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Scott Rigell did what relatively few fellow Republicans are willing to do: He stood on stage next to a pair of liberal Democrats.
The Virginia Beach lawmaker joined Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) as well as Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) at a Capitol Hill news conference to introduce a bill aimed at outlawing straw purchases of guns.
Amid the polarization in Congress and the emotion surrounding gun issues, Rigell said in an interview that “the real challenge is to find the folks in the middle” willing to keep an open mind and find room for agreement.
In a little more than two years in Congress, Rigell has become one of the rare Republicans eager to work across the aisle. He has broken with party orthodoxy on taxes and has advocated a broad range of reforms in the way Congress does business. Rigell was also one of only two Republicans to vote against holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder in contempt of Congress in June over the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning operation.
Rigell’s willingness to strike his own path has started to draw notice.
“Thank you, Scott, for what you’re doing here. I think its very important for all Americans,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, an advocate for tougher gun laws, told Rigell after he appeared Tuesday on “Morning Joe.”
Rigell calls himself a gun owner and a “lifetime” member of the National Rifle Association. He declined to endorse the idea of universal background checks for gun purchases when Scarborough pressed him on it, calling that “a difficult issue.” And the straw purchase legislation, which would make gun trafficking a federal crime, is backed by a host of law enforcement organizations.
But Rigell’s alliance with Democrats on the measure has drawn some criticism in his home state.
“If he’s backing Democrats on gun-control measures, all he’s doing is caving to the politically correct left,” said Karen Miner Hurd, chairman emeritus of the Virginia Tea Party Alliance PAC.
She called the gun measure “another black mark” on a record that has drawn the ire of tea party activists before.
Rigell made a splash a year ago when he announced that, after having signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes in 2010, he would not be signing it again in 2012 because the constraints would make it too difficult to raise revenue through reforming the tax code.
“In practice, the pledge can work against the very goal we seek to advance,” Rigell wrote in an open letter to his constituents.
ATR head Grover Norquist said Rigell could not wriggle out of his commitment so easily.
“The pledge is taken by someone running for the House or Senate and is good as long as that person is in the House or Senate,” Norquist told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. “The written promise is to the people of Virginia in this case.”
In December, in the midst of the “fiscal cliff” debate, Rigell reiterated his tax stance. He sent a letter to his colleagues criticizing the ATR pledge and arguing that Congress couldn’t just cut its way back to a balanced budget.
Rigell has been a vocal advocate for budget cuts, but he frustrated some conservative groups by voting (along with 173 other Republicans) for the August 2011 compromise bill to raise the debt ceiling.
As a longtime auto dealer making his first bid for public office, Rigell was a relative unknown when he ran in 2010 for the Hampton Roads-based seat held by Rep. Glenn Nye (D).
Helped by the endorsement of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a longtime ally, Rigell won a crowded Republican primary, overcoming complaints from some on the right that he might be insufficiently conservative. Rigell took heat for having made donations to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and Mark R. Warner’s 2001 gubernatorial bid, and for his car dealerships’ participation in the controversial “cash for clunkers” program.
Rigell ousted Nye by 11 percentage points, and then won reelection in 2012 by 8 percentage points over Paul Hirschbiel, a wealthy financier who had been highly touted by Democrats.
Hurd said she believed “eyes are out” among conservatives for a viable primary challenger to Rigell. But he is among the wealthiest members of the House and has put his own money into his two previous races, so that could help discourage potential foes.
Rigell said his voting record received strong grades from conservative groups and would hold up well to any challenge.
“If someone wants to do an end run on the right, I’ll be happy to meet them at any town hall,” he said.