Veena Lothe and Debra Rodman at candidate forum

Sarah Westmoreland, right, the facilitator at a candidate forum, speaks with Del. Debra Rodman, center, and Veena Lothe, left, before the forum on Monday, May 20, 2019, at the Libbie Mill Library. Lothe and Rodman are vying in the June 11 Democratic primary for Senate District 12, which includes parts of Henrico and Hanover counties.

The two Democrats running in the June 11 primary for the chance to challenge state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, said they would make abortion rights a focus of the general election campaign and said Virginia is at risk of Alabama-style legislation banning abortion if Democrats don’t win the General Assembly this year.

Republicans control the Senate 21-19, and the 12th District seat is near the top of the list of targets Democrats hope to flip.

Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, opted to give up the 73rd House of Delegates seat she won in the 2017 wave election, when she beat former GOP Del. John O’Bannon, and is now running against Veena Lothe, an immigration and civil rights lawyer, for the Democratic nomination.

The two candidates answered questions for about 60 people at the Libbie Mill Library on Monday, alongside candidates for sheriff and the Board of Supervisors. The candidate forum was sponsored by two local chapters of the progressive activist group Together We Will.

Although the primary has caused bad feelings between the two Democratic camps, the candidates both went after Dunnavant at the forum.

Lothe criticized Dunnavant for not voting to ban “the barbaric practice of gay conversation therapy.”

“She is a doctor who voted against Medicaid expansion. We’ve got to get her out.”

Said Rodman: “I believe the American dream should not be about having a politician between a woman and her decisions about her body. ... I beat a 17-year Republican incumbent who led the fight against Medicaid expansion.”

Rodman said her top priority, if elected as a senator, is women’s reproductive care and ending restrictions on abortion access.

“I’m the one who stood beside [Del.] Kathy Tran when she did her bill, and we know that that’s what we’re going to be doing this year. We’re going to be fighting over reproductive rights and we’re going to bring it forward when we get the majority this year,” Rodman said.

Rodman co-patroned a bill by Tran, D-Fairfax, to ease abortion restrictions. The bill created national controversy after Tran, under questioning from House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said her bill would allow for abortion up until the moment of birth.

Dunnavant said in a statement Monday that she wants to expand health care coverage without increasing spending and putting Virginia “at the further will of Congress,” and her legislation to do that passed the state Senate but was killed in the House.

Regarding abortion, Dunnavant said: “As an OB-GYN, I can tell you that babies are not aborted in the third trimester, they are delivered. I am opposed to the Tran bill and believe the overwhelming majority of 12th District voters share that view.”

Rodman and Lothe also discussed gun laws, which Lothe said would be her top priority in office, and racial disparities in maternal mortality.

Rodman, an anthropologist and professor at Randolph-Macon College, made her entry into the primary on March 10, encouraged by staff from embattled Gov. Ralph Northam’s political action committee, The Way Ahead.

The PAC asked the Democratic Party of Virginia to pay a research firm to conduct a poll, which showed Rodman could do well in the general election. Rodman cited the poll in the run-up to her announcement.

But Rodman joining a primary in which two minority candidates had long been running prompted several of Rodman’s closest female advisers to leave Rodman’s camp. One of the candidates, Marques Jones, then dropped out of the primary to run for county supervisor.

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