Before announcing his campaign to become Mississippi’s governor, state Rep. Robert Foster made a commitment to his wife, Heather. He’d follow the “Billy Graham Rule” — which, in his words, means avoiding “any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”
His personal policy, which is also used by Vice President Mike Pence, presented a problem for Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell. Citing “the optics,” Foster declined Campbell’s request for a 15-hour ride along, unless she brought a male colleague. Campbell and her editor objected on the grounds that it was sexist, and it prevented her from completing a story assignment about the Republican contenders for governor.
Term limits prevent incumbent Phil Bryant, a Republican, from seeking reelection, leaving an open seat and a hotly contested election. Three Republicans filed to run in the Aug. 6 primary: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, former state Supreme Court chief justice Bill Waller Jr., and Foster. There are also eight Democrats running.
With the primary approaching, Mississippi Today planned the outlet’s coverage, which included shadowing each of the three Republican candidates.
Campbell’s relationship with Foster dated from November, when she received a tip that he planned to join the governor’s race. After breaking the story, Campbell said she has kept an eye on Foster — calling him an “interesting” candidate: a Hernando, Mississippi, native “running to the right of a very conservative lieutenant governor,” but who also holds some more progressive views, like expanding Medicaid coverage.
Mississippi Today reporter Adam Ganucheau shadowed Reeves and Waller. Campbell, having interacted with Foster and his team on several occasions, said she proposed to ride along with him.
Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, told Campbell on Sunday the team was excited about the coverage and had a “big day planned Thursday.” The freshman representative would be driving to the Gulf Coast, giving Campbell access to a 15-hour day.
They discussed details, then Robison said he had “a weird request.”
“Would it be OK if one of your male colleges accompanied you?” he asked the veteran reporter.
Campbell recalled not knowing how to respond; she later broached it with her male editor, R.L. Nave, who said: “Absolutely not. That’s sexist.”
Two days later, Campbell suggested to Robison ways she could assuage Foster’s concerns: She would keep her press pass in plain view; she would stick by Robison’s, not Foster’s, side. She reminded Robison that there would also be photographers with the team throughout the day.
“We’re really concerned about bad publicity,” she said he responded. “Some tracker could take a photo putting (Foster) in a compromising position, and it would jeopardize his campaign.”
Campbell recalled feeling “surprised and disappointed” during the call and said she asked Robison if “the only reason I would be improperly linked to your candidate is that I’m a woman.”
Robison agreed, adding, “Perception is everything.”
Foster told The Washington Post in an email Wednesday that he would grant Campbell the interview, but “we just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone.”
In what Campbell calls “a funny little twist,” she told The Post she is “very openly gay.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Foster said that people should always uphold a level of respect and professionalism and make sure there is no opportunity for there to be a he-said/she-said moment.
He added, “Everyone has to make their own decisions about how to act in life. This is mine.”
Following the phone conversation, Foster tweeted: “Typical liberal Washington Post is now criticizing me for my Christian beliefs. Not surprising, considering they are totally out of touch with America.”
On Tuesday, the Mississippi Today reporter published a piece detailing what had happened. Many responses Campbell received mention the current post-#MeToo moment, in which Foster is “trying to protect himself.” Some drew parallels to a doctor bringing a nurse into an examination room.
“That’s a fair point,” Campbell told The Post, “but the nurse is on the doctor’s payroll. If the doctor feels he needs to be protected, he doesn’t put the onus on the patient.”
Foster, she explained, has essentially said, ” ‘You can’t do this because you’re a woman and you’re responsible for making me feel comfortable.’ The problem is the notion that the woman carries the burden to make the man feel comfortable.”
A spokesperson for Waller, one of the other Republican contenders, said it would be a nonissue for his candidate. “It’s our campaign’s standard practice to always have a member of the staff present when speaking to the press.” A spokesperson for Reeves did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s not surprising to see this sort of sexism, Campbell said, and it’s not unique to the GOP, to Mississippi or to reporters.
“Political reporting can be an old boys club, but I think this happens to a lot of women, in a lot of work arenas. That’s why it’s resonating right now,” she said.