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Being a lawmaker is the latest leap for career-hopping Kiggans

Former helicopter pilot and nurse won in the top swing district in the country

Virginia Republican Rep. Jen Kiggans is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in her Longworth Building office.
Virginia Republican Rep. Jen Kiggans is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in her Longworth Building office. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When Jen Kiggans decided to run for Virginia’s state Senate in 2019, she cited Elaine Luria as her inspiration. That was odd enough — Luria’s a Democrat while Kiggans is a Republican. But things got stranger still just three years later, when Kiggans decided to run for Congress … against her political muse, Luria.

Kiggans edged out Luria in what might be the most swinging district in the country, an area around Virginia’s Hampton Roads. Like her role-model-turned-rival, Kiggans is a Navy vet in an area full of them, thanks to nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base. Between flying military helicopters and writing laws, Kiggans was a stay-at-home mom and geriatric nurse.

Kiggans spoke to Roll Call about her career jumps, EPCOT’s accuracy, and how she intends to buck recent trends in Virginia’s 2nd District and win reelection.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’ve had an interesting career trajectory: You were a Navy helicopter pilot, a geriatric nurse and now a lawmaker. Is there a throughline that connects all those?

A: We always talked about a life of service. How can I be of service to country? And then I was. Stay-at-home mom, that’s an important job I did in between those two careers, and that was service to family. Then we talk about service to my patients and my community; my mom’s a nurse, my brother’s a nurse.

You know, somebody told me one time, “You just like wearing uniforms.” That’s not untrue — and I was a product of Catholic school! But I really love being able to help people, fix their problems and make their lives better.

Q: You’re the vice chair of the Nursing Caucus. What are some issues you hope to make progress on this year, keeping in mind the partisan split between the two chambers?

A: One of the things I love about health care and nursing is health care is not a partisan issue — should never be, right? So I could speak to a room of people in the opposite party about things like nursing home reform and health care for our greatest generation, and everybody would agree with me because these are problems that touch everyone.

One of the things I’m really focused on is the workforce challenges in nursing. They took such a hit during COVID — we overworked those guys, man. I never think nurses are compensated enough, so we’re seeing the ramifications and the shortages specifically in our nursing workforce. And they really are the backbone of health care. That’s who’s at the bedside, who answers the questions from the family or the patient. So we need to recruit and retain, but how can we incentivize people to go into all levels of nursing? I’m very concerned with nursing home staffing especially. Nurse practitioners are great in that environment, but I need a lot of CNAs, LPNs, RNs, people that maybe don’t need four-year degrees but need some level of education.

Q: You’ve said that [former Rep.] Elaine Luria inspired you to run for state Senate; she’s also a Navy vet and was a newcomer to politics who won. And then a few years later, you ran against her in a race that got a little heated at times. What was that like? Did you ever talk to her about that deep irony with her?

A: It was surreal. So the first time that I listened to Elaine Luria debate [former Rep.] Scott Taylor was on a lunch break, in the parking lot of the nursing home and watching it on YouTube, and taking notes on what both sides were saying and thinking, Gosh, this is kind of a mess.

That’s why I ran for office initially: because I didn’t like what I saw on TV. I didn’t like how politicians were doing politics. It wasn’t a good direction for the country, a lot of hate and animosity, negativity. I thought we could do better than that.

The second time I saw Scott Taylor and Elaine Luria debate, I had entered state politics. I remember listening to that debate, [and] now I’m actually in the room. So to be onstage for the third [Luria] debate — to be a participant, and to be able to actually debate my opinion versus her opinion — really, I don’t have a lot of words to describe it. It was great. I like to think of it as my American dream, my progression. I was so frustrated, I wanted to do something about it, so I got off my couch and I did something.

Q: You’re in a very swingy district — the swingiest, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan voting index — and the DCCC has already put you on their target list. How do you plan on bucking the recent history of your district’s swings?  

A: The same way I did it this past time round. We talked consistently every day about issues that voters cared about. And I don’t think my opponent did the same. The media said I ran a disciplined campaign. I was very careful and made sure I talked about the kitchen table issues. [Voters] cared about how much money they had in their pocketbooks, they cared about what’s going through kids in schools, they cared about community safety, and in my district, we care about the military.

So those are the issues I talked about. I think that’s why we won, because I said the same thing every day, refuting a lot of the misinformation that was spewed about me by the other side. It goes to show you: You try to serve people, help them figure out how to make their lives better, solve their problems, and they vote for that. Republicans, independents and hopefully a few Democrats too.

Quick Hits

Last book that you read?

Tuesdays with Morrie,” by Mitch Albom. I love that book.

In politics, can the ends justify the means?

I think the process is important. How you get to the ends is very important.

What is your least popular opinion?

I dislike bacon. And we have some pork producers in my district.

What is one thing your close friends know about you that your constituents probably don’t?

Running is my happy place. I go to great lengths to maintain the ability to go out and run 3 to 4 miles as many times as I can.

You worked at Disney World in high school. You also spent five years living in Japan. How faithful is the EPCOT World Showcase version of Japan to the real thing?

It’s great! EPCOT did a great job when they opened to invite people from those host countries over and really make sure it was very accurate. And if you know anything about Disney, they are very attentive to detail, so I’d say it’s very accurate. Their restaurant serves really good and authentic Japanese food. Their gift shop sells all the things from Japan.

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