DESOTO COUNTY, Miss. (WMC/Gray News) - Less than a year after U.S. Senator Cindy-Hyde Smith’s comments about public hangings, another Mississippi politician has sparked a national controversy.
Robert Foster, a DeSoto County state representative and Republican candidate for governor, denied giving a female reporter access to him on the campaign trail unless she brought a male colleague with her.
Larrison Campbell, a politics reporter for Mississippi Today, said her publication shadowed the other Republican candidates for Mississippi governor and wanted to do the same with Foster.
"We want to show our readers what it's like to be on the campaign trail, but sort of like the candidate's goals for Mississippi through the lens of how they're interacting with people, how they're campaigning, how they're selling their message," said Campbell.
Shadowing candidates on the campaign trail is a common practice in political journalism. National political reporters often do it with presidential candidates, interviewing them at different stops, riding with them on campaign buses and capturing some of their lighter, human moments.
But Foster told Campbell she could only shadow him if she brought a male colleague.
He says he didn't want people to get the wrong idea seeing him alone with a woman who wasn't his wife.
"They're going to look at a glimpse of somebody passing in a car, sitting together at a restaurant eating alone with someone and they're going to make assumptions. That's the way people are," said Foster. "I don't want to put myself in a position to be assumed that I'm doing something I shouldn't be, that's inappropriate."
Foster told WMC Action News 5 it's part of his deeply held religious beliefs, often known as the "Billy Graham Rule" or more recently the "Mike Pence Rule," in which Christian men avoid being alone with women other than their wives.
Foster said he was also worried about political perceptions, with the Republican primary under a month away.
"It's all a possibility that the my political opponents could try to exploit something against me if they wanted to, if they feel threatened in the race that they might need an extra bump in the polls or knock me down a few points," said Foster. "There's a lot of things out there in the #MeToo movement, all of the things happening where people are making claims, accusations against people, and I don't ever want to put myself in a position to where it could be a he-said she-said situation. I want to make sure that I protect myself and my family and my marriage with not having anybody make claims that can't be refuted other than just my word."
Campbell said she has interviewed Foster several times before with no problems.
She calls his decision now sexist.
"A woman only looks improper in this context if you view her as a sexual being first and as a reporter second," said Campbell. "I was trying to do my job and they sexualized me."
Campbell said she and her editor decided she should write about the experience to explain to their readers why Foster wasn't getting the same coverage as his primary opponents.
Campbell hopes it also sparks a conversation about the discrimination women face in the work force, including in politics.
"Obviously this story is getting play because it's about a Republican candidate from Mississippi. It fits the narrative that people throughout the country have about Mississippi, but this is not a Mississippi Republican story. This happens in political reporting," said Campbell. "Politics has long been a male arena and female reporters are treated differently and we need to talk about that."
Campbell's article went viral on social media.
Foster says despite criticism he believes most voters would agree with him.
“I think they’re going to stand behind me pretty strong. I think the vast majority of Mississippians would agree with my position,” said Foster. “I put God first and everything I do and to me, there’s nothing else that comes even close to him.”
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