By Morgan Edwards
Capital News Service
RICHMOND -- It may have been Friday night lights around Virginia for high school football, but in the political field, the two candidates competing for the Senate District 12 seat took to the stage to debate key issues.
Incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, faced off against challenger Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, in front of an audience of about 60 people at Virginia’s home for Public Media’s station in Chesterfield County.
Having won the coin toss to determine opening statement order, Dunnavant introduced herself to the audience.
“I do not believe in using political advertising to scare people. I don’t believe in taking credit for other people’s accomplishments,” she said, alluding to a TV attack ad that said Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN, wrote the bill to allow insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, and a mailer that called her a “quack” for writing the bill.
The Rodman sponsored ad and campaign mailer were rated false by Politifact Virginia based on the language -- insurance companies could already write short-term policies omitting pre-existing conditions, Politifact said -- and the premise that it would affect any Virginian when it would affect around 21%.
In her opening statement, Rodman said she ran for office in 2017 to help bring the peoples’ voice to the General Assembly. She also underlined her record on health care since joining the legislature.
“The truth of the matter is I’ve delivered more health care to more people in the first two months of my term than she’s done in her whole political career,” Rodman said.
This back and forth out of the gate and throughout the hour wasn’t unexpected for a campaign defined by stuffed war chests and frequent TV ads, campaign mailers and over $30,000 spent on social media messaging. The Virginia Public Access Project’s latest numbers show that in 2019 Rodman’s campaign has raised $1,849,866 in cash and in-kind contributions. Dunnavant’s campaign has raised $998,414. Last month, Capital News Service reported that the 12th District race was the first to spend over $1 million on media buys.
Moderator Craig Carper delved quickly into the big-ticket issues, first asking the candidates their stances on education.
“It’s good to hear. It’s good to care. It’s good to listen,” Dunnavant responded. “You have to act to actually get things done.”
“We can’t just say ‘return funding,’” Dunnavant continued, in reference to Rodman’s call to return education funding “taken away by Republicans.” “We have to say what that funding is going to be used for.”
In 2017, Dunnavant supported legislation to ease the creation of charter schools, that passed both Republican-majority chambers and was vetoed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Rodman said now that the economy is no longer in a recession the state needs to start better-supporting teachers and schools.
On health care
On Medicaid expansion, Rodman argued that Medicaid is an essential program, acting as a rising tide lifting all boats by increasing the number of insured Virginians. Dunnavant said Medicaid/Medicare only helps 30% of people in the state while the other 70% still receive health care through their employer.
On gun violence
When the debate pivoted to the topic of preventing gun violence, the shadow of the Virginia Beach massacre that killed 13 people in late May loomed.
Rodman said she has supported common-sense gun legislation from the beginning. She said a five-minute background check for gun purchasers could go a long way in saving lives and preventing dangerous people from buying weapons. Rodman finished by leveling one of her first pointed criticisms of the debate at Dunnavant.
“Moreover, my opponent’s response to gun violence is an app,” Rodman said. “An app for a hotline that already exists. And even if you call that hotline because you’re afraid that a loved one will hurt themselves or others, there’s no teeth.”
Dunnavant accused Rodman of feeding into the “acrimonious” nature of Virginia politics. She said fixing the mental health crisis in the country would decrease mass shootings.
Rodman said that conflating mental illness with gun violence stigmatizes those with mental illnesses. She said studies have shown that individuals with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.
On hate crimes
Dunnavant jumped on a question from the audience about hate crimes and denied an alleged claim that she didn’t believe they were on the rise. Dunnavant contended that Rodman had misrepresented her past statements on the matter.
“Yet as we speak you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a mailer and on TV to perpetuate rhetoric against the trans community and sending transphobic messaging. “I think it’s irresponsible and I think it’s cruel,” Rodman said.
Dunnavant further explained her view on gender reassignment surgery.
“That ad is not about transgender. It’s about tax dollars being paid for elective procedures. It’s very clear and it’s emphasized in the ad,” Dunnavant said to applause from her supporters. The referenced ad calls Rodman “radical” for her stance.
Rodman then suggested that Dunnavant talk to her constituents about their feelings on funding the surgery, earning her own applause.
Despite some pointed comments throughout the debate, the candidates never raised their voices or resorted to ad hominem attacks. The calm body language of both Dunnavant and Rodman was noticeable.
Dunnavant talked about bipartisanship in her closing remarks, but included a dig against her opponent for using “extreme” messaging.
Rodman talked about why she decided to run for Senate.
“We have made a difference in the past two years in a minority party; imagine what we can do in the majority,” Rodman said. “I’m going to continue to work hard for my community and fight for what matters and I will do that for you on Nov. 5.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.