Larrison Campbell knows Robert Foster well. She has interviewed him numerous times. In fact, the reporter for Mississippi Today is the one who broke the story that Foster was running for governor in that state.
When she wanted to follow him on the campaign trail for a day — like the publication was doing with all the GOP gubernatorial candidates prior to the upcoming primary — she called Foster directly.
That’s why Campbell was stunned when she heard back from Foster’s campaign director, Colton Robison.
“Hey, I have a weird request,” he told her, according to Campbell. “We’re going to need you to bring a male colleague along.”
And with that began a controversy making national news that is pitting what Foster, 36, claims is Christian values against what Campbell, 40, is calling sexism. Campbell wrote about the ordeal in a first-person piece for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet. Foster, a Republican state representative, has fired back on Twitter and a radio interview.
Let’s go back to July 7, when Campbell was told by Robison that she needed to bring along a male colleague if she wanted to spend the day, probably about 15 hours, riding in a car with Foster as he travelled the state talking to voters.
“At first, I didn’t even know what to think; it was such an out-of-leftfield thing,” Campbell told me in a phone interview Wednesday. “And then as they explained it, I was like, ‘Oh wait, you’re serious and this is just because I’m a woman.’”
Campbell said she needed to talk to her editor. Soon, both sides had drawn a line. Campbell was not going to bring along a male colleague and Foster’s camp said she could not travel with the candidate without one.
“They said because you’re a woman, he wants to avoid any impropriety,” Campbell said. “Anything that could make him look guilty of having an improper relationship with a woman. … Apparently being seen with a woman in a work context is so unusual people would assume I was there to have an affair with him. I said that to them. I said, ‘There is no reason other than the fact that I’m a woman that would imply an inappropriate relationship.’ And Colton said, ‘Yeah.’”
After Campbell published her story Tuesday night, Foster responded by tweeting:
“Before our decision to run, my wife and I made a commitment to follow the “Billy Graham Rule”, which is to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage. I am sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share these views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife.”
In a radio interview, Foster said:
“In our case, it was a female reporter asking to ride along, and my campaign director is in and out and gone sometimes. … It’s just going to be a lot of opportunities for an awkward situation I didn’t want to put myself in. … We just wanted to keep things professional.”
Which is what Campbell said she wanted to do.
“The inherent sexism — not only in his request, but just the Billy Graham rule in general,” Campbell said. “I’m trying to do my job, and they are sexualizing me. They are saying, ‘You’re not a reporter first. You are a sexual creature.’ They’re saying people are more likely to believe that you’re on this campaign trail because you have a relationship with him than because you’re just doing a job. It’s infuriating.”
Since this story has broken, Campbell said the reaction from readers has been mixed.
“I think a lot of people believe in this day and time — and I’ve heard people say that in this post-Me Too movement — men just can’t be too careful,” Campbell said.
In the meantime, Foster has tweeted that he is being attacked by the media:
“Once again, the liberal left is attacking someone for their integrity, professionalism, and Christian beliefs. They aren’t just attacking me. They are attacking the countless Mississippians who also share these values. Exactly why we need a #msgov who will protect these values.”
But Campbell said, “What he’s saying is the fact that you are a woman is making me uncomfortable. It is his problem. He’s the one who is uncomfortable. The responsibility shouldn’t be on me. It is sexist to assume that I am the one who needs to make him feel comfortable. The responsibility should be on him.”
Campbell also heard from women supporting her.
“This not a Mississippi story,” Campbell said. “It’s striking a chord with people everywhere. It’s kind of shocking, but it’s ultimately not surprising. Women all across the country have had this experience. In other arenas, too. But politics is an ol’ boys game. And local reporting has traditionally been a men’s field, too, and I think a lot of people see a woman in that space and they can’t quite process …. And that’s clearly what happened here.”
Campbell also said this goes far beyond her not being able to get a story.
“It really begs the question: Is he going to be able to be fair to women?” Campbell asked. “Is he going to be able to be as much of a governor for women as he is for men? Is he going to be able to see women as equals?”
Campbell, by the way, brings up one other point that she finds funny: she is openly gay. Not that it changes her opinion on the message Foster is sending.
“If you see a man in a work-related space with another man, well then, he’s doing work,” Campbell said. “If you see a woman there, she must be having an affair.”