Sen. Jack Riggs is a doctor of politics.
A physician by profession, the Coeur d’Alene Republican applies his medical skills to legislation.
“I use it really in problem solving,” Riggs, an idealist, says. “I take the best course of treatment for whatever the policy situation we’re analyzing and that comes back to trying to make the world a better place.”
His thin lips display a shy smile. His pale face gets rosy when asked if he is successful at bettering the world.
“Well, yes,” he says.
After a long pause he adds, “Or, at least Idaho.”
Gazing out the window on a warm March afternoon, Riggs is in a daydream-like state. But his thoughts aren’t locked on shooting hoops in the Capitol parking lot.
Instead, Riggs, 43, ponders his first term in the Idaho Senate.
The Coeur d’ Alene native ran on a platform filled with promises of a balanced approach to natural resource issues. He has become a moderate on social issues, thanks to his placement on committees such as education, commerce and human resources.
So instead of pushing timber issues, Riggs now heads efforts to keep minors from getting tobacco products, find state money for Head Start programs and create charter schools in Idaho.
The spotlight shines on his proposal to fix Highway 95.
His motivation - saving lives. “I didn’t campaign on this,” says the freshman lawmaker of the project that has consumed his days and nights.
He heaved a sigh of relief Thursday when the Senate voted 23-11 to pass his bill that would put an advisory vote on the November ballot about how to upgrade Highway 95.
Riggs has learned compromise. Originally, his bill was designed to raise millions to upgrade Highway 95 and several other state roads by imposing an additional car registration fee.
He has learned to make deals. Knowing he has the support of Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, in the House, Riggs is now confident the bill get a warm reception.
Most of all, he has learned to perfect the skills needed to transform an idea into a reality.
“I had no idea what it takes to take a bill on and to get it through all the committees and guide it along,” he says. “It’s been a time-consuming project. But I’m happy to do it. The safety implications keep me motivated.”
Though Riggs is a staunch Republican, he says he takes the position that makes the most sense, regardless of party line.
Last week he found himself the lone Republican rallying with Democratic Rep. Donna Boe of Pocatello for Head Start funding.
“I don’t like a lot of programs,” Riggs says. “I’m not a make a program to fix a program to fix a problem type. But here’s a program with a lot of validity.”
Last week, Riggs stood at the podium in support of a bill by Rep. Larry Watson, D-Wallace, that would grant liquor licenses to certain county restaurants.
“Every time I needed a hand on something I thought was important, he was there,” Watson says.
It’s not unusual for North Idaho Democrats and Republicans to cooperate.
“Though outlooks are different, there’s a far bigger chasm between the north and south then there is between North Idaho D’s and R’s,” Watson says.
Riggs is confident about his choices.
He sits quietly on the Senate floor, often pressing his right index finger against his lips. His blue eyes fill with intensity as he ponders.
Watching and listening are Riggs’ trademarks. When he does speak, he stands with grace. This manner hides Riggs’ largest fear - public speaking.
Riggs dreaded orating until his trip down the campaign trail. “I probably have an aversion to public speaking,” he says. “The biggest surprise was I really liked campaigning.”
But standing at the podium doesn’t hide Riggs’ shyness, a trait that serves as an advantage.
“I am shy,” he says in all honesty. “But it allows me to listen well.”
Riggs tries to put his shyness in perspective with his profession.
“A good doctor always listens first,” he says in his calm voice. “I know some doctors who interrupt and tell patients what’s wrong with them before they’re finished talking.”
Riggs plans to keep listening, and with his new-found like of campaigning, he may aim his political career higher. But he’s hesitant to comment on the possibility. “If the conditions were right and I thought I could be effective … ” Riggs says after a long pause.
U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne inspired Riggs’ political career
Riggs says he didn’t catch the political bug until age 18, when classmate Kempthorne got him involved in politics at Whitman Hall, a University of Idaho dormitory.
“Just because I knew the man it lead to meeting other people and becoming more and more involved,” Riggs says.
Riggs says his political involvement is paying off.
“It lets you know that if you put in time and energy and have a good idea, maybe you can make the world a better place,” he says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo