President Barack Obama was serving his first year in office in 2009, the last time Del. John M. O’Bannon III, R-Henrico, faced an opponent for the 73rd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
In 17 years and nine elections, O’Bannon has faced opposition three times — only once by a Democrat — and has never received less than 62 percent of the vote.
But in the turbulent political era ushered in by the election of President Donald Trump, the longtime Henrico County incumbent faces a spirited challenge by Debra H. Rodman, an associate college professor who won the Democratic nomination in June in a field of four candidates calling for change.
“It seems like she’s running more against Mr. Trump than she is against me,” said O’Bannon, 69, a neurologist for HCA Hospitals who was first elected in 2000 to fill the House seat vacated by then-Del. Eric Cantor.
Rodman, 45, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies at Randolph-Macon College, says her target is O’Bannon’s voting record. The bull’s-eye is his role in blocking Medicaid expansion in Virginia and support of what she calls Trumpcare, including efforts to cap federal payments to states for the 52-year-old health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled.
“There’s a lot of concern about health care, and there’s shock that their delegate of 17 years would be a doctor and lead the fight against Medicaid expansion,” she said of voters on the campaign trail.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has tried for four years to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but each time he has run into a Republican firewall in the House, in which O’Bannon has been a pillar as a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on health and human resources.
“We’ve taken a deliberative approach on Medicaid,” he said in an interview last week. “We’re comfortable with where we are.”
But O’Bannon said that doesn’t mean he and House Republicans have stood pat on health care. He points to the House’s support of a McAuliffe proposal to use Medicaid to provide services to people with mental illness, as well as a new waiver program for addiction and recovery services treatment, or ARTS.
“Regardless of who wins in November, we’re going to have to continue to work on Medicaid and our safety net and our vulnerable populations,” he said.
Rodman said those initiatives, while laudable, are “like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole,” while the state is forgoing billions of dollars in federal funding that could free state money for other needs.
O’Bannon acknowledged that some of the unsuccessful attempts by Congress this year to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cap federal Medicaid spending “took too much out” of the program. However, he added, “Right now, it’s open-ended; there are no checks and balances in there.”
For four years, he has been a budget conferee, representing the House in negotiations with the Senate to reconcile differences in the two-year state budget. As a result, he said he has helped secure spending on supportive housing for people with mental illness and services for youth in foster care after they turn 18.
O’Bannon also is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on economic development and hopes to secure a seat on the Major Employer Investment Commission that oversees state incentives to land big economic prospects.
“I’ve been down there long enough to form some positive relationships with people,” he said, adding that with the retirements of Sens. Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, and John Watkins, R-Powhatan, two years ago, “I’m one of the more senior people down there” from the Richmond region.
Rodman portrays O’Bannon as “an entrenched politician” whose voting record does not reflect his constituents’ concerns, especially on health care and education, as well as women’s reproductive rights.
She cites his support of a constitutional amendment to allow the state to bypass local school boards to establish charter schools, and a bill (ultimately vetoed by McAuliffe) to allow parents of disabled students to use their state per-pupil funds to pay for private or parochial school tuition.
“He comes across as a real moderate, yet he voted 99.3 percent of the time along party lines,” she said.
“I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m an educator and a working mom.”
Rodman and her husband, Darryl Lowery, have two sons, 5 and 7, and live in the Greendale neighborhood of the district near Staples Mill Road.
O’Bannon and his wife, Pat, who is the longtime Tuckahoe District representative on the Henrico Board of Supervisors, have three children and four grandchildren, all of whom are enrolled in public schools.
As an incumbent in senior leadership positions, he holds a big fundraising advantage in the race, having raised more than $410,000 through Sept. 30, mostly through cash contributions of more than $100 from high-profile donors such as the Medical Society of Virginia, retired Owens & Minor chairman G. Gilmer Minor III, and Dominion Energy and several of its executives.
In contrast, Rodman has held her own by raising more than $153,000, including more than 4,200 contributions of $100 or less that total nearly $50,000. She said she has not asked for or accepted contributions from Dominion, the Richmond-based energy company.
“People are excited for new leadership and a change,” she said. “They haven’t had a choice.”
O’Bannon has been knocking on doors, too, in a campaign that on both sides has relied on face-to-face contact, phone calls and mailers to voters rather than television ads.
“We’re just running a straight, clean, robust campaign,” he said. “We’re not taking anything for granted, but we’re optimistic we’re going to represent the people again.”