A sweetheart deal, broken promises, tax breaks — the accusations against Democrat LuAnn Bennett in recent television ads sound like they could be pulled from an ad attacking GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
But Bennett, a real estate developer challenging Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), says the claims are false and she is considering fighting back in court.
The ad in question was funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee and aired in the metropolitan D.C. market that includes Comstock’s hotly contested Northern Virginia congressional district.
It argues that Bennett backed out of a deal to build a preschool on land her company developed in the District’s rapidly gentrifying NoMa neighborhood. Lawyers for Bennett say she fulfilled all her obligations and the ad is “false, misleading and deceptive.”
The NRCC said it stands by the ad, which ended its week-long run on broadcast television on Monday but continues to appear on cable television and radio. It spent $842,559 to air the ads to date.
Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer said the campaign was unaware of the content of the ad before it aired because it is an independent expenditure.
The ad, titled “Parking Lot,” claims Bennett promised the District that she would build a day-care center on vacant land at 77 H St. NW but instead created a parking lot. “LuAnn Bennett. She makes government work . . . for her,” the ad says.
In 1990, Bennett’s company signed a 99-year lease with the city to develop the District-owned lot at New Jersey and H streets. As part of the deal, the Bennett Group agreed to build a preschool there.
The Bennett Group assumed only a federal agency would locate in what was then a less-desirable part of the city, the campaign said. As the company sought such a tenant, it made a side deal with the nearby U.S. Government Printing Office to allow employees to park on the property.
After years of trying unsuccessfully to develop the site for various federal agencies, the company renegotiated terms of the lease, including a provision that required it to give $1 million to an educational foundation instead of building the day-care center.
The company wanted to drop the day-care facility because after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, when 15 children died in an attached day-care center, it became less desirable to locate day-care facilities alongside federal agencies.
Eventually, Bennett scrapped the federal agency concept and built 300 apartments and a Walmart on the site. In addition to the $1 million donation, the company was required by the city to give about $9 million to other community groups, the campaign said.
“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” she said. “We were really able to develop this in a way that benefits D.C., the community and our partners. It’s exactly what we need to do more of in government.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee said it stands by the ad and did not pull it early; it said it had always planned to stop airing it on Monday.
“LuAnn Bennett gave her word to the District of Columbia Zoning Commission that she would build a preschool at this site,” said NRCC spokesman Chris Pack. “The preschool LuAnn Bennett said she would build does not exist because LuAnn Bennett broke her promise to build it.”
The flap is the latest twist in a race overshadowed by the presidential contest.
In another year, Comstock might sail to victory in Virginia’s 10th District, which was drawn for a Republican to include Loudoun County and choice sections of Fairfax and Prince William counties as well as conservative rural counties bordering West Virginia.
Instead, the 10th District is very much in play.
Bennett’s campaign has tried to link Comstock to Trump, emphasizing that they both oppose abortion and equal pay for women.
Bennett has been trying to woo independents, women and immigrants in the district and are cool to Trump’s comments about women, his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border and his threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Comstock had neither repudiated nor endorsed Trump until Friday, when a 2005 video surfaced in which Trump bragged in lewd terms about using his celebrity to kiss and grope women without consequence.
That was when the congresswoman became one of the first GOP lawmakers to urge Trump to drop out of the race, calling his behavior “obscene” and “unbecoming of anybody seeking high office.”
Political experts say the move shows Comstock feared losing independent voters turned off by Trump more than she risked alienating die-hard Trump fans.
“She won’t lose many of her core GOP voters by dumping Trump, but she will earn respect for her stand from many independent voters — the people who will decide the outcome of this race,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Comstock is relying on voters to support her even if they are opposed to Trump. Mitch Sproul, a self-described fiscal conservative from Loudoun, was a reluctant Trump supporter who is now considering writing in a different candidate altogether.
The 61-year-old finance executive said he was delighted by Comstock’s response to the video, which he said did not disturb him as much as Trump’s non-apology apology did.
“Good for her,” he said. “No ifs, ands or buts I’m sticking with Comstock.”
But Chalet Jean-Baptiste, a 36-year-old Democrat and teacher at Northern Virginia Community College, views Comstock’s statement as an insincere play for votes. If Comstock were truly offended by the Trump video, she should have been disturbed by any number of other insults Trump has lobbed throughout the campaign, Jean-Baptiste said.
“Yes, this is disgusting,” she said, referring to the video released last week. “But what he did previously was disgusting as well.”