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Comstock splits with Trump on federal employee issues, but still gets stink by association

Challenger Jennifer Wexton leading in House race before Tuesday’s vote

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), left, and state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudon) both oppose President Trump's policies on federal employees. But as a Republican, Comstock still must deal with his negative baggage going into Tuesday's election in Virginia's 10th Congressional District, an area with many government workers. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post and AP) (N/A/The Washington Post?AP)

If Rep. Barbara Comstock loses her reelection bid in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District race, blame stink by association.

A Republican incumbent in a district stocked with government employees, Comstock has distanced herself more than many in her party from President Trump’s punitive federal workforce policies.

The latest polls, however, indicate that might not be enough in her race against Democrat Jennifer Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor. Wexton had an 11-point lead in a Washington Post-Schar School poll concluded on Oct. 28.

As the candidates were making their closing arguments to voters before Tuesday’s midterm election, we spoke with them about issues of particular importance to a constituency that knows the government well: federal workers.

Comstock, who was a federal employee before she was elected to Congress, split from Trump on his proposals for a 2019 federal pay freeze and $143.5 billion in cuts to federal retirement over 10 years. She sparred him in the White House over his irresponsible threats to shut down the government. She has been a leader in the fight against sexual harassment in congressional offices and a strong advocate of paid family leave for federal employees.

But Comstock’s party is led by a racist, sexist, fearmongering liar. That’s acceptable in many parts of the nation, but not in Northern Virginia. It’s hard for any Republican to escape Trump’s presence, as he acknowledged when he told a rally in Southaven, Miss., last month that the vote is “a referendum about me … pretend I’m on the ballot."

Whether voters in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District do that or not, it’s clear that Trump hurts Comstock.

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer Wexton won the Democratic nomination for the state's 10th District on June 12, and attacked her opponent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Wexton counts on that by noting in television advertisements and during the interview that “Barbara Comstock has voted with Donald Trump’s agenda 98 percent of the time.” The presidenthas been attacking the federal workforce since he took office … he calls the federal workforce a swamp.”

Despite her differences with the president on federal workforce issues, Comstock voted with Trump more than Republican Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) did, according to the FiveThirtyEight website.

When asked about Trump’s approach to federal employees, Comstock searches for the right words, then treats him gently: “Well, he obviously, um, I don’t think he’s familiar with, you know, he does not know all the, the issues involved.”

That’s a weak critique. He must, or certainly should, know the issues he initiated — the pay freeze, the retirement cuts and his executive orders that would severely weaken federal employee unions. The administration is appealing a federal-district court order blocking much of his directives.

Comstock raises her opposition to those orders as an example of why congressional Republican pushback is important in a Republican administration. The orders “embark upon a path that will undo many of the long-standing principles protected by law,” 21 House Republicans, including Comstock, wrote in a letter to Trump.

Despite such actions, Comstock gets failing grades from the largest federal labor organizations. The American Federation of Government Employees 2017 congressional scorecard indicates she voted with its positions on just 38 percent of the bills. The National Treasury Employees Union rated her 54 percent. She quickly touts, however, her 88 percent rating from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, a nonunion organization that tracks federal workforce and retiree policies.

The unions can see through “her veneer,” Wexton said, “and they’re looking at how she actually has voted.”

Like Comstock, Wexton opposes the proposed pay freeze, retirement cuts and Trump’s executive orders. Wexton criticized the closing of union office space in federal agencies following implementation of the orders. The president’s measures, she said, are “counterproductive and going against the long-standing rights that federal workers had.”

Wexton disagreed with Comstock’s vote for the VA Accountability First Act of 2017, which would cut civil service protections for Veterans Affairs staff members. The bill would undermine due process by expediting disciplinary procedures so workers would have less time to defend against charges. The burden of proof against them would be reduced in certain cases. The Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears appeals, would have its time for consideration reduced, but without added resources to do its work faster.

Comstock said she supported that bill because “our veterans have earned and deserve the best care possible and there are a lot of inexcusable things that happened to them.” She would not necessarily support similar restrictions on workplace protections in other agencies, she said, adding, “That’s where I would definitely want to work with federal employees’ groups.”

Wexton was more definitive in her opposition to cutting due process. “I think that the civil service protections are very important for federal workers so that they are not wrongfully terminated.”

Now, many voters in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District seem ready to terminate the workplace protection given Trump by Republicans — including one like Comstock.

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