Barbara Comstock was a young aide to U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) 21 years ago when she was assigned a constituent’s complaint about the White House that would eventually grow into the roiling political scandal known as Travelgate.
The duty propelled Comstock into a role that would last for years — Republican foil to Democrats Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton through many of the big scandals that engulfed them: Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment.
Today, Comstock is making a name for herself as a state lawmaker and the Republican nominee to replace Wolf, who is retiring from his Northern Virginia seat. And her history as a Clinton foe carries a new resonance in a state likely to factor heavily should Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016.
Comstock is trying to rally the Republican base with critiques of the former secretary of state’s handling of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. And she peppers her remarks with recollections of her anti-Clinton advocacy during the 1990s.
But Comstock’s Democratic opponent, John W. Foust, is seizing on her résumé, too. Clinton herself was featured in a recent online ad for Foust that calls Comstock “a professional Clinton hater” who is “hellbent on smearing Hillary Clinton.”
And several former Clinton aides are helping Foust characterize Comstock as an unrelenting conservative partisan.
In other words, Clinton-bashing is no longer a surefire way to rally voters in a state that rejected both of Bill Clinton’s bids for president but that, last fall, elected as governor one of the Clintons’ closest confidants, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
How the Clinton-Comstock narrative plays with voters in the 10th Congressional District could say a lot about how much Virginia has changed and whether the commonwealth is ready to embrace a Clinton run for president.
“I think this will be a fascinating case study,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Comstock was uniquely involved in the Clinton-era investigations, and Democrats think this is an opportunity to portray her as too partisan for the district.”
It all began in May 1993, when the Clintons were still settling into Washington and seven career staffers in the White House Travel Office were summarily fired.
The ensuing national drama included a federal trial on embezzlement against the travel office director that ended in acquittal, allegations of political cronyism and fraud against the Clintons, and the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.
Comstock, now 55, said the Clinton-era investigations she helped oversee and her later success in conducting opposition research on other Democrats illustrate the effectiveness she can bring into Congress. For some audiences, she also isn’t shy about recalling her work in a more partisan light.
During a Republican primary debate last spring, Comstock said, “We made criminal referrals to the Justice Department when the Clinton administration stonewalled us on campaign finance investigations, the $6 million worth of fraudulent payments they had received, and I can go in and do that with Benghazi.”
Wolf recalled that Comstock’s assignment to look into what was initially an angry constituent phone call was somewhat random.
“She did a good job,” he said in an interview. “Whatever is coming in, whoever handles it depends on who is available. She was picked because she was a capable person.”
Comstock’s opponents see a direct line from her role back then to what they argue is the extreme partisanship among Republicans in Congress.
Foust’s campaign — noting that he was coaching soccer during the ’90s while she was investigating the Clintons — cited Comstock’s support of conservative issues in Richmond and her work lobbying for such conservative activists as the Koch Brothers as proof that she is a partisan soldier.
“People like Comstock, when they get to Washington, their focus is on destroying the opposition as opposed to working across the aisle to get things done,” Foust said in an interview. “Washington doesn’t have to be as dysfunctional as it is, but if your mind-set when you go there is to destroy the opposition, then things will never improve.”
When the Travelgate scandal first erupted, Comstock worked on child-care and health issues for him.
Eventually, those duties expanded to include federal employee issues, which Wolf, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, took an interest in on behalf of a constituency heavy with government workers.
Her probe into the Travelgate controversy — which Republicans argued was a scheme engineered by Hillary Clinton to put an Arkansas-based friend in charge of the travel office — got Comstock hired in 1994 as chief investigative counsel to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
There, she delved into Bill Clinton’s fundraising history. Later, she became a fierce advocate for impeaching him.
And all of it continues to play out in the 10th District today, once a Republican stronghold but now a hotly contested region stretching from McLean to the Shenandoah Valley.
Fliers passed out to 10th District voters by a political action committee called South Forward — chaired by Don Fowler, the head of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton years — calls Comstock “part of the culture of corruption in Richmond and D.C.” South Forward is based in South Carolina and typically focuses on local elections in Southern states, but Comstock’s presence in the 10th District race has drawn the committee to action in Northern Virginia.
“She is the face of everything we believe is wrong with the Republican Party,” said Jay Parmley, South Forward’s executive director.
Republican bloggers criticized the group’s involvement as an act of vengeance against Comstock, who targeted Fowler in a 1999 probe into fundraising by the Clinton-Gore campaign.
“I can understand why Mr. Fowler may have an ax to grind against her because he was basically run out of town,” said Norman Leahy, a conservative online columnist for several publications, including The Washington Post.
Fowler scoffed at that charge, noting that the Justice Department cleared him of all accusations. Nonetheless, he said, “I’m delighted, delighted that we went into it, and I hope that we’re successful.”
Comstock said the investigations she conducted were never partisan, particularly Travelgate.
“It was more that these guys had all been wronged,” she said.
Wolf, too, said it wasn’t about politics. “She was very intelligent,” he said. “Barbara was an important part of my staff.”
More than 20 years later, that’s how some of the former travel office staffers still see it.
Gary Wright, 72, said the income he lost by being forced into an early retirement required him to take a job as a corrections officer for a North Carolina state prison.
“My attorney told me I went from the White House to the big house,” said Wright, who is now retired.
Though their legal bills were eventually picked up by the federal government, the outcome “put a financial hurt on me,” Wright said.
Billy Ray Dale, the former director of the travel office, said it took years for him to recover from the trauma of being tried in federal court on embezzlement before he was acquitted with the help of character-witness testimony from several prominent members of the White House press corps.
During a 32-year career that stretched back to the days of John F. Kennedy, “nobody had ever tried to get rid of us,” said Dale, 77. “We worked for Republicans and Democrats alike, and it never got political.”
He now lives in rural Virginia, he said, and considers himself an independent.