Former Congressman Frank Riggs hopes he can parlay a long-ago vote to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, a fierce advocacy for parental choice and charter schools and an effortless, small-town charm into a chance to run the state of Arizona.
He passed through Payson last week on his long-shot gamble for the Republican nomination in a field crowded with better-known contenders, appearing on KMOG, dropping by the Roundup, meeting with local officials and delivering a speech to the Tea Party faithful.
He said education remains his top priority, along with eliminating the state’s structural deficit, tax reform through eliminating sales tax deductions and opting out of federal initiatives like health care and educational reform.
He said after serving in Congress with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and voting to impeach President Clinton, he spent more than a decade working to expand parental school choice and charter schools. That brought him to Arizona 12 years ago, which led to his decision to jump back into politics.
“The challenges are too great to stay on the sidelines. We’re at a breaking point. We need someone with the dedication, stamina, energy and courage to make the tough decisions.”
A slight, energetic man with combed back, graying hair and an eager, genial charm augmented by a delighted sense of humor and a knack for asking disarming questions, Riggs campaigned through Payson in the custody of his wife Cathy and Roger Kreimeyer, the friendly, ever-present Payson community organizer who has served as the driving force behind the Payson Community Garden, Payson Area Food Drive and other charitable causes.
Riggs is running in a crowded Republican field that includes Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Treasurer Doug Ducey, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, state Sen. Al Melvin, obstetrician John Molina, Go Daddy executive Christine Jones and former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Polls show none of the candidates have so far garnered much support, with the August primary vote rapidly approaching.
On the Democratic side, former Arizona Board of Regents Chairman and political consultant Fred DuVal faces no serious opposition. Ironically, DuVal worked as a top political aid in the Clinton White House.
Riggs’ core political experience goes back to the fierce Republican resistance to then-President Clinton, which culminated in an unsuccessful effort to impeach him in connection with his efforts to avoid investigations swirling around his affair with a White House intern. Riggs came into Congress in a Democratic California district as a result of the stunning takeover of the House by Republicans led by Speaker Gingrich.
Riggs amassed one of the most conservative voting records in Congress during his two different stints in the House, from 1992-1992 and then again from 1995-1998, according to Govtrack.us – which compiles voting records in Congress. The vote tracking service noted that he missed about 9 percent of votes, about three times above Congressional average.
Riggs touched on most of the core, conservative Republican issues, saying he opposes abortion and restrictions on guns, while advocating rejection of federal Common Core academic standards and money to expand eligibility for AHCCCS under the terms of federal health care reforms.
And like most of the Republican field he advocates the elimination of the progressive income tax. However, unlike some of his Republican competitors he calls for comprehensive tax reforms that might raise sales taxes by repealing broad exemptions for many products and services. Some estimates suggest that the repeal of all such exemptions could effectively double the amount the sales tax produces.
Economists say Arizona’s revenues dropped by about a third during the recession mostly because it relied on the volatile sales tax and a minimal income tax. The steep drop in state revenues during the recession prompted the deepest cuts in education in the nation, amounting to about $1 billion.
Riggs said the best way to help education remains an all-out effort to boost the economy. “In the long-term, the solution is to create jobs and to reinstall in our citizens this sense of civic and personal responsibility – we’ve gotten so far away from self-sufficiency.”
He said that the state should pull out of the federal health care reforms, including the expansion of AHCCCS to cover impoverished childless adults and families with incomes up to 133 percent of poverty. Gov. Jan Brewer pushed hard for that expansion arguing it could provide health care to at least 240,000 state residents while bringing into the state an additional $1.6 billion in federal funds. The expansion will actually bolster the state budget by $155 million annually by 2016, due to a surcharge on hospital bills most of the state’s hospitals to reduce the cost of uninsured patients.
However, Riggs said the state could get stuck with rising costs if the federal government eventually cuts back its contribution.
“If Medicaid (AHCCCS) is truly designed to be a program for indigent health care, then that’s what you need to do. Increasing the burden on those who pay taxes for those who don’t” won’t work in the long run.
Instead, he said, he would focus state attention on stronger schools and universities.
He strongly opposes the embrace of the federal Common Core academic standards, which stress critical thinking skills and provide billions in federal funding. Gov. Jan Brewer has supported those federal standards.
“My highest priority is K-12 education,” said Riggs. But these standards have not been field tested – they’re top-down mandates. These decisions should be made at the district level.”
Riggs has spent more than a decade as an advocate for charter schools, privately run schools that get state support and accept any student, but don’t have to abide by many of the rules that apply to district schools
He advocates making sure that money “follows the student” through something like vouchers at both the K-12 and university level. That would, for instance, provide a certain amount of taxpayer money for each student no matter where the student enrolls,.
“We’ve cut to the bone, especially in K-12 education where we’ve reduced state spending by $1.1 billion since 2008. We need truth and transparency in budgeting and major tax and spending reforms.”