WASHINGTON, DC—When he was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2000, Sen. Freddy Rigby (D-NE) knew he had a tough road ahead of him. Developmentally disabled since birth, Rigby's controversial election provoked reactions ranging from misty-eyed admiration to outrage. But to supporters and detractors alike, this very special senator makes one simple request: to be treated just like any other lawmaker.
"I like my job as senator!" said Rigby, speaking from his Georgetown-area group home Monday. "I do good work! I sign everything myself—no stamp! I have a lot of friends in the Senate. Trent [Lott], John [Warner], Charles [Schumer], Dianne [Feinstein], Russ [Feingold], Wayne [Allard], Tom [Daschle]. They're all invited to my house for popcorn! I'm just as good as them, and I want to be treated just like normal."
Rigby, 44, who scored a surprise upset victory over Republican opponent Bruce Linsenmyer in one of the closest elections in Nebraska history, points to his Senate voting record as proof of his qualification to hold public office.
"I sponsored the Everybody Eats Food Bill of 2001, [which makes it illegal for] Americans to go hungry!" Rigby said. "That way, poor people don't have to starve anymore! Lots of mac 'n' cheese... I like that! And I was the first senator [to propose] free weekly field trips to Little Tyrol for the American people. It would be free, 'cause the government would pay for the bus rides!"
Little Tyrol is a recreated Swiss village and amusement park near Lincoln, NE, that Rigby frequents.
"And after the terrorists bombed the Sears Towers, I was the first senator [to draft a resolution calling for professional wrestler] The Rock to go find them and kick their butts!" Rigby said. "Yaay! The Rock!"
In addition to his impressive legislative record, Rigby boasts the best attendance record in the Senate. He is always the first to arrive and the last to leave the Senate chamber, even on days when the legislative body is not in session.
Rigby has also won praise for his concern for the common man.
"At the end of every session, after the other senators have gone home, Freddy will follow me around, asking if he can mop," Capitol custodian Larry Gibson said. "I say, 'Now, come on, Freddy, you're a senator now. You're a lot more important than old Larry here. Why don't you go draft a bill or serve on a committee or something?' He'll usually go away for a while, but then he always comes back carrying a full wastebasket, saying, 'I like to help you, Larry!' He won't leave his limo driver alone, either."
Despite winning the admiration of so many around him, Rigby is not without his critics. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans recently formed out of concern for the senator's ability to hold public office.
"Now, we all like Freddy—everybody in the Senate does," Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) said. "We love the construction-paper vases and desk placemats he made all of us, as well as the way he puts all his senator stuff away in the multi-colored plastic bins in his office at the end of the day. But does that make him qualified to be a legislator? Should he be in the position to cast the deciding vote on a key Medicare-reform bill? It's just not fair to the American people—or to him."
Some on Capitol Hill have recommended that Rigby be paired up with a "buddy senator," who would advise him and wield veto power on his votes. Rigby, however, has rejected the suggestion, pointing to his previous work experience at an Omaha-area Wendy's as ample evidence of his competence.
"I am just as good as anyone else! I am just as good as anyone else!" Rigby said. "They let Strom Thurmond be senator, and he's 200 years old! I like representing the great state of Nebraska! Nebraska is number one!"
It is clear, however, that the constant questions regarding Rigby's competence have taken their toll on the senator's self-esteem. In November 2001, Rigby ran away from Washington.
"People were being mean to me, and I was very, very sad," Rigby said. "So I ranned [sic] away. I took the bus all by myself for the first time. I saw a Waffle House, and they fed me for free when I said I was a senator. Then they called the police to pick me up. I got to ride in a police car! I've ridden in a police car and a limo and a fire truck [since becoming a senator]!"
Nearly 36 hours after fleeing the nation's capital, Rigby was found by police in Alexandria, VA, and promptly escorted back to Washington. Accompanying the police were several concerned members of the senator's staff and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who befriended Rigby while the two served on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
"Freddy thought people were mad at him and didn't like him, and he was being a little grumpy with the police and his staffers," Boxer said. "So on the car ride back home, I explained to Freddy that there will always be people who won't understand why he's a senator, but that he should know that it's okay to be different. I told him he should be proud of himself and the work he's done in the Senate. That seemed to calm him down quite a bit. He also really seemed to like the Koosh slingshot I gave him."
Janet Fjelstad, a Columbus, NE, legal secretary and longtime Rigby supporter, attributed the senator's improbable rise to "the power of unconditional love."
"People who think developmentally disabled people should be kept out of public office don't understand just how much these very special folks have to offer us," Fjelstad said. "Fortunately, Freddy has a lot of friends—the thousands of people who elected him to the Omaha City Council, then the Omaha mayorality, then the Nebraska Senate, then the U.S. Senate."
Continued Fjelstad: "Many of them were once prejudiced, too. They'd say, 'Why should we give a retarded guy the power to make decisions on vital issues of national import?' But in the end, Freddy's sunny personality, infectious grin, and insistence on making a crayon drawing for every constituent—whether they voted for him or not—won most of his critics over. For the first time, it forced people to seriously question conventional definitions of intelligence and competence. After all, when was the last time a politician engaged your mind and touched your heart?"
Unfazed by the lingering doubts of some, Rigby reaffirmed his commitment to represent the people of Nebraska to the best of his abilities.
"I try hard!" Rigby said. "I'm the hardest worker at my group home! Except for Josh. He works at Popeye's, and he always brings home chicken and biscuits and gravy! I wish I could bring home chicken from my job."