Voters of the 10th Congressional District have a stark choice when it comes to who will represent them in Congress next year. That’s one of the few things Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock and Democrat LuAnn Bennett agree on. Theirs is the most competitive congressional race in Virginia. With six weeks to go before Election Day, the candidates have launched an air war of television ads, and are preparing to debate in October.
Recently, the Tribune sat down with each candidate for conversations about the issues, themselves and the presidential race. Excerpts from the interview with Republican Barbara Comstock were published yesterday. Excerpts from the interview with Democrat LuAnn Bennett follow.
Some have called you a “carpetbagger” who hasn’t lived in the 10th congressional district and has an apartment at the Ritz-Carlton. How do you answer that?
I have lived uninterrupted in Northern Virginia for 35 years, at least as long as Rep. Comstock, maybe longer. I moved here when I was married. We bought a home in Fairfax County. We started and raised our family, and started a small business. We lived in Great Falls for sixteen years. My husband passed away in 1994, we lived there another few years and then the boys and I moved to Mclean for another 15 or so years.
Yes, I own an apartment in Washington, D.C. My company renovated it. It’s now being rented, so it’s a business property and that’s kind of the end of that story.
If elected, what are some things you’d like to see accomplished by Congress?
One is infrastructure spending, because I think we create a lot of jobs for people. The other area is education. I think we really need to invest in our nation’s education system, and that’s means universal pre-kindergarten, it means high quality K-12 education for every student no matter where they live. It also means re-training opportunities, using our community college system for skills training for coding and technology.
We also need to get our arms around this college affordability issue. My husband and I were in our late 20’s when we bought our first home. Too many of our young couples can’t consider getting married, can’t buy their first home till much later, and that means they can’t buy appliances, home goods, and furniture. It has a ripple effect in our economy when so many kids come out of college with a debt burden that precludes them from being a participant in the broader economy.
Is Hillary Clinton ethically fit to be president?
If the question is, is Hillary Clinton going to keep this country safe, my answer is yes. Does she have the temperament to have the nuclear codes, absolutely. She’s the most experienced person, male or female, who has ever run for the office of the presidency. I believe that her agenda for the country and the economy is the right agenda. As far as the distractions related to the foundation and other things, I can’t speak to that, but I do believe between the two, I think Donald Trump would be a very dangerous person.
Let’s talk about why people have so little trust in Hillary Clinton. A lot of it is rooted in the beginning of Barbara Comstock’s career as an opposition researcher for the RNC [Republican National Committee]. Her first job was to work for [Rep.] Dan Burton on the investigative committee. She was part of a small group that created many of the bogus scandals against the Clintons, including Travelgate, Vince Foster, Whitewater.
Rep. Comstock has said repeatedly that she does not endorse Donald Trump? What do you say to that?
She’s kind of dancing on the head of a pin here. She has not endorsed him, but she also won’t say she won’t vote for him. When asked will you vote for Donald Trump she changes the subject immediately. I think the voters in the 10th District have a right to know who you would support. I will tell them I am supporting Hillary Clinton. I’m going to be unambiguous about that. There will be people who agree with me and people who don’t, but they have a right to know who I support and why. She really needs to get off the fence.
How do you feel about the Iran nuclear deal, and as a member of Congress how would you vote to keep America safe?
I support the Iran nuclear deal. We have set back Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapon by at least 15 years, so that’s got to be a good thing. Iran is a country with a very young population, it’s leadership is older and I think the feeling is that over that 15-year period the demographics are going to change the country and it will give us opportunities. Having said that. we need to be sure that we’re policing that agreement.
How we keep our country is safe is a multilayer approach. There is no silver bullet here. We have stirred up things in the Middle East in a way that is creating a lot of upheaval and chaos and displacement and things that we’re going to have to deal with.
[Gov.] Tim Kaine at one point urged the president to consider a no-fly zone to allow a lot of the Syrian refugees to stay in place, that we would protect them staying in their country. We made a choice not to – I believe at the time Russia was entering the theater and there were significant issues around that. So we didn’t do it, but because of that, we have this refugee crisis. We’ve made a much smaller commitment than most western European countries and we’re taking them very slowly. With our refugee program it takes a year-and-a-half to two years to vet a refugee to come into this country. I’m sure there are things we can do better, but I feel fairly comfortable that we are vetting our refuges well.
How would you deal with immigration generally?
I would like to see us pull out the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. It was an approach to dealing with not only our borders, but our undocumented workers here. A lot of the challenges we have as a nation don’t lend themselves to sound bite solutions. The idea that we’re going to deport 11 plus million people in this country, first of all would decimate certain business in this country, agriculture, construction, hospitality.
It also needs to be handled humanely. In some case, we’re tearing families apart. We’re sending people back to dangerous situations in their own countries, so I believe that the Senate did a good job in their comprehensive immigration bill. The House has refused to take up that bill and that’s one of the reasons that gets to the heart of why I am running.
More jobs have been lost to technological displacement than trade.
What would you do to keep more jobs in America?
I think it’s a bigger question than that. We have lost jobs to trade. And there’s a part of trade called Trade Assistance Authority (TAA), which is a fund that the government funded to provide assistance to people who lose jobs through trade. That fund has never been fully funded, or implemented. As a matter of fact, in the last Congress I believe they cut TAA. I think that needs to be expanded.
I think we can do a better job of protecting our workers and protecting our environment. We do have leverage with the rest of the world because we’re such wonderful consumers, so we have to use that leverage and really protect our workers.
More jobs have been lost to technological displacement than trade. If we brought every manufacturing plant back to the United States, we would not be brining all the jobs back. Jobs have changed. Technology has changed them. I think a big component of this is education. I believe we need to start looking at education and infrastructure investment as investments in our country, the way any business would.
What’s your position on gun ownership?
I am a registered gun owner in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I grew up in a hunting family in the Midwest have a great appreciation for gun ownership. Most gun owners are responsible and have no problem registering that they have guns.
When we started universal background checks, most gun dealers routinely did background checks. But when we started these checks, we didn’t have internet sales. The landscape has changed. People can do things anonymously that could never be done before. All I’m saying is we need to know where guns are. We need to know they’re not in the hands of dangerous people and Barbara has voted 11 times to block legislation from coming to the floor that would keep guns out of the hands of people on the Terror Watch List.
What should we do to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people?
Sometimes I think it’s used as a red herring to avoid addressing the universal background checks or the gun show loophole. It’s very easy to “let’s forget about that, let’s just work on mental health. I think we need to do both. I don’t think it’s an either-or situation.
Here in Virginia we have very lax gun laws. You can take guns in public parks, you can take them into bars.
I think we need to look at expanding our mental health services. I was on the board of the Virginia Healthcare Foundation. It’s a bipartisan public-private organization that supports our free clinics across the state and they just expanded into the mental health area because we have lost so many facilities in the Commonwealth.
If you could make the federal tax system more fair, would that mean higher taxes?
My sense is it could mean lower tax rates, but no loopholes, so one might pay very close to what the rate is.
I would never sign Grover Norquist’s No Tax Pledge, because there are times when you need the revenues. It shouldn’t be the first place you go, but certainly you shouldn’t tie your hands. Barbara Comstock signed the pledge when she was in the House of Delegates. It’s why she voted against the largest transportation bill to come out of Richmond in 27 years that funded Phase II of the Silver Line. She voted against that funding because there was a tax in that bill.
If elected to Congress, what would do about the Affordable Care Act?
It’s not a perfect bill. Just like when social security was first passed, it wasn’t a perfect bill. It evolved over time to the system we now have. We need to fix it. To waste the Congress’ time to vote 65 times or however many to repeal a bill, those are the kinds of things I find personally frustrating.
We had two issues when we passed the Affordable Care Act. One was that our healthcare costs were representing a bigger part of our GDP than any other civilized nation. And we had too many uninsured citizens. Access has improved, probably not as far as it needed to, but we have more than 11 million Americans who have healthcare now who didn’t have it before, and that’s moving in the right direction.
I don’t know if we need to include a public option. We are seeing some insurance companies pulling out of some markets. We need to look into that, figure out why, figure out how we can keep competition in these exchanges because the Affordable Care Act depends on there being competition on the cost side of it, driving the cost down depends on that competition. I don’t have that answer right now, but I’m open to getting together with Republicans and saying ‘okay, let’s set aside repealing the whole thing. How can we fix it?
You have said you’re decidedly pro-choice. What do you say to pro-life voters?
Here is what I would say to them. I am not pro-abortion. The question is who should be making the decision. I think a woman, her family and her faith counselor, her minister, her rabbi, should be making that decision. To make the decision that you would never have an abortion is a personal decision and that’s a perfectly legitimate position. What I object to is someone with that position thinking they have the right to make that decision. We don’t know the stresses of other people and their lives, and I think it’s presumptuous for anyone to think that the federal government, that body far removed from that deeply personal choice, that that’s the right choice for that decision to be made.
What’s a signature accomplishment of your career?
Probably opening the first Wal-Mart store in D.C., which was not only fascinating but a perfect example of what I know can be done. We controlled a property on a ground lease, so the city government was our planner. This ground lease required that we have 30 percent of our profits as a partnership go to community groups, and we funded an education foundation. And then we dealt with Wal-Mart, and with creating an urban model for their store that’s very different from a rural model.
Through this process, which was a year-long negotiation with the developer, the city and Wal-Mart, all made compromises. That’s the way problems get solved, and that’s what we have to do in our federal government. Business and government should not be opposed to one another.
Outside of my career, it’s my sons. They’re all starting their own businesses, two in tech startups, one in real estate.
Luann Bennett, in brief.
LuAnn Bennett is a longtime business executive working in the Washington D.C. are. She is president and owner of Bennett Group, a real estate company with services ranging from consulting to property management. Bennett also works on the financial and legal side of the Bennett & Owens sports representation firm along with former Washington Redskins player Brig Owens. Additionally, she has served on the board of the National Children’s Museum, the I Have a Dream Foundation, Turnaround for Children and the Institute for Sustainable Communities Board. She also served as former Gov. Tim Kaine’s appointee to the Virginia Climate Change Commission.
Bennett, 62, graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in education. After college, she worked for the St. Louis Cardinals NFL team. Upon moving to Northern Virginia, she formed Bennett Group with her late husband, Richard Bennett, who died of leukemia in 1994. She was married to former Democrat congressman Jim Moran from 2004 to 2011. Bennett is a mother to three sons and has a grandson.