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Candidates for Va. congressional seat tangle over residency in first debate

Thomas Oliphant, center, moderates a debate for the race in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District between Republican Denver Riggleman, left, and Democrat Leslie Cockburn in Washington, Va. (Dayna Smith/for The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON, Va. — Republican Denver Riggleman accused Democrat Leslie Cockburn of living in Washington, D.C., instead of in the swath of rural Virginia that they are vying to represent in Congress, saying during a debate Wednesday night that she and her husband had claimed a homestead exemption for a house in the nation’s capital.

“That drive from D.C. to the [congressional] district is a long damn way,” Riggleman said during one of several heated exchanges during a two-hour debate in the quaint Rappahannock County hamlet known as “Little Washington.”

Cockburn, a former “60 Minutes” producer and author, said she lives in Rappahannock — although she identified herself as a resident of Georgetown and New York in 2013 while promoting a novel she had just written.

Cockburn then fired back at Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who with his wife owns a craft distillery outside Charlottesville, for building a second location out of state.

“You’re creating jobs — in Pennsylvania,” she said.

Sponsored by the Rappahannock News and Businesses Rappahannock, the debate was the first of five scheduled between the 5th District candidates. Both are political newcomers competing for the seat being vacated by freshman Rep. Thomas Garrett (R), who announced in May that he is an alcoholic and is not seeking reelection.

Rep. Garrett says he is an alcoholic and will not seek reelection

The two-hour forum began as a mannerly affair inside the Little Washington Theatre. Former Boston Globe columnist Tom Oli­phant, who lives in the county, struck a professorial tone as moderator, with his bow tie and preemptive scolding against booing or clapping.

“The idea here is to try to have a conversation for 90 minutes,” he told the candidates, who were seated on stage on either side of his high-backed chair. “I’m going to lob more softballs than hardballs.” At one point, he asked Cockburn for “a little word portrait of what’s going on in the community right now.”

Oliphant kicked things off by asking Riggleman to “pretend I’m from Mars for a minute” and describe the district to him. The Republican used the playful tone to try to defuse an attention-getting allegation that Cockburn had made back in July: that Riggleman was a devotee of “Bigfoot erotica.” It was a reference to a satirical book that Riggleman wrote — before running for office — about the mating habits of Sasquatch. The claim was just weird enough to go viral.

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“I would tell the Martians, first of all, Bigfoot doesn’t exist and these are my new Bigfoot socks,” he said, lifting one pants leg a bit. “And I would very much appreciate it if we didn’t talk about that.”

Cockburn did not give a nod to the Martian theme, but she talked about how she’d put 70,000 miles on her car crisscrossing a district that’s larger than the state of New Jersey, stretching from the Washington exurbs to the North Carolina border.

“We all have a huge amount in common,” she said.

Oliphant noted that it was unusual to see two political “rookies” in a race, even for an open seat. Riggleman made a short-lived bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year, and this is Cockburn’s first run for office. Oliphant wanted to know what pushed them into politics.

“Did you get mad at something?” he asked. For both, the answer was yes.

For Riggleman, the impetus came from twin battles: one with the bureaucracy and liquor lobby he encountered while opening Silverback Distillery in 2014, the other with Dominion Energy, which around the same time planned to route a large gas pipeline through his property.

“We felt like we were fighting this multifaceted war, and I felt like I had no power,” he said.

For Cockburn, a filmmaker and journalist, it was outrage over President Trump, a sentiment she hopes will resonate in Charlottesville and other liberal enclaves in the largely rural district.

“What happened to me was Donald Trump, and the fact that we were being represented and continue to be represented by a mini-Trump,” she said, referring to Garrett. “So with Donald Trump, I was really appalled by him as a woman and as a former journalist to hear him say, ‘Journalists are the enemy of the people.’ ”

The discussion grew more heated as they got into policy differences, including guns (she’s for more restrictions, he’s not). But the harshest exchanges came as Cockburn, who grew up in California, claimed to have lived in the district longer than Riggleman, who was raised by a single mother in Manassas and spent summers in the district with his father. Cockburn said she has lived there for 11 years.

“You’re talking a lot about your commitment to the 5th District where I’ve been three times as long as you’ve been,” she said. “You’ve been here six years in the district.”

Riggleman replied, “Well, ma’am, we just heard about a homestead exemption . . . for you in Washington, D.C., with your husband.”

The exemption is a break on real estate taxes that applies only the owner’s principal residence.

“No, that’s not true,” she said. “You’re the last person to know, Denver, that we, like many people in this county, have a place in Washington. We’ve been residents here for many, many years. . . . And we pay a lot of taxes.”

“In Washington, D.C.,” he added.

The most recent tax bill on the couple’s $2.2 million District property, at 3127 N St. NW, reads: “The homestead deduction reduced your taxes by $623.48.” The bill, for $8,576.12, covers half of the 2018 tax year.

In a brief interview after the debate, Cockburn said the couple did not claim the house as their primary residence.

“We’ve been residents here for 11 years — vote, pay taxes, everything,” she said. “It wasn’t claimed.”

When asked about the tax records, she suggested that District officials might have erred. “When you say, ‘No homestead exemption’ on your tract, often D.C. will send it back, so you have to resend it. And that’s what happens to me all the time.”

Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, attended the debate and echoed Riggleman’s claim afterward.

“The documents speak for themselves,” Shipley said. “She was assessed for the taxes on that home, and the bill shows that the homestead exemption is included.”

He also noted that Cockburn listed the Washington address when she made a $500 campaign donation to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Cockburn said that was only because the couple have an office there.

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Shipley noted how she had identified herself in 2013 when promoting her novel, “Baghdad Solitaire.”

“My name is Leslie Cockburn. I live in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and in New York,” she said in the interview for The Kitchen Sisters podcast.

Asked about how that, campaign manager Louise Bruce did not respond directly but said: “Leslie has paid taxes here as her primary residence since 2008, and that’s just a fact, and has devoted herself not just in terms of having a place, but she’s built a farming business, played an active role in the community here. She’s joined multiple boards.”

On the topic of health care, Cockburn said she supported the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. Riggleman said his own business has been saddled with sharply rising insurance premiums that he blamed on the ACA.

When Oliphant asked Riggleman about a bipartisan plan to fix the ACA rather than “junk it,” Riggleman said he would listen to any practical proposal, including allowing insurers to sell across state lines. But he dismissed “Medicare-for-all” — a plan to extend the government health insurance program for seniors to all Americans — as “pie in the sky.”

Riggleman then pressed Cockburn on whether she supports that: “So you are for Medicare-for-all?” he asked.

“I am indeed,” she said. She, in turn, noted that she covers health insurance for all of her campaign workers and asked Riggleman if he did the same. He said he did not.