A Mississippi Republican running for governor and a female reporter seeking to spend a day with him on the campaign trail squared off Thursday morning on CNN over his refusal to be alone with her.
The candidate, state Rep. Robert Foster, stood by his decision to insist that reporter Larrison Campbell bring a male colleague if she wanted a “ride-along” in his truck because he “just wanted to keep things professional” and avoid “a lot of opportunities where it would’ve been an awkward situation.”
“I didn’t want to end up in a situation where me and Ms. Campbell were alone for an extended period of time throughout that 15- to 16-hour day. And so out of precaution, I wanted to have her bring someone with her, a male colleague,” Foster said over the phone in a live interview with CNN’s John Berman Thursday. Campbell was also on-air.
“The other thing that I think is important to point out is that this my truck, and in my truck we go by my rules,” Foster added.
Berman pressed Foster about his ban on Campbell as a “precaution,” asking who it was the candidate didn’t trust in a situation where they would be alone together.
“I trust myself completely,” Foster said in response, to which Campbell smiled and let out a breath in slight amusement. “But I don’t trust the perception that the world puts on people when they see things and they don’t ask the questions. They don’t look to find out the truth.
“Perception is reality in this world,” he continued, “and I don’t want to give anybody the opinion that I’m doing something that I should not be doing.”
Campbell blinked, appearing to be at a loss for words before she responded to Foster’s comments.
“First of all, like you said, it’s your truck, it’s your rules,” Campbell said. “Why is it my responsibility to make you feel comfortable about something that, again, as your campaign director said on the phone with me, is this weird request that you have? Why was I the one — why is the onus on me to bring someone along?”
Foster said it was because Campbell was the one who requested the ride-along as part of her coverage for the publication Mississippi Today.
“No other candidates have ever had a rule like this,” Campbell noted. “Why does it appear improper for a man to be with a woman? Why wouldn’t, like, a gay affair be construed if you were with a man? Unless, at the end of the day, what you’re saying here is a woman is a sexual object first and a reporter second.”
Foster pointed out that he is a married man and that he made an agreement with his wife, in observance of his Christian faith, that neither of them could “be alone with someone of the opposite sex throughout our marriage.” This vow, he said, he “put that ... above anyone else’s feelings.”
“I apologize to you for that, that it may hurt your feelings, but I would much rather uphold my vows to my wife over anyone else,” he said. “I’m not ever going to be put in a situation with any female to where they could make an accusation against me and there’s not a witness there to refute that accusation.”
Foster’s stance has been adopted by other married men in public life, and has sometimes been called “the Billy Graham rule.” Vice President Mike Pence has made a point of not having a meal with an unaccompanied woman. Even men without a public reputation to defend, such as business executives, have adopted it as a precaution to avoid the risk of a false accusation of making a sexual advance. But it has led to a backlash on the part of women who contend that it hinders them professionally — in holding meetings or in seeking mentoring from men.
“We got to call this what it is,” Campbell said in her final words to Foster. “When a woman isn’t given access to the same things that a man would be given access to, it’s sexism.”
When asked if he would give a man access he denied to Campbell, Foster said, “I would, and I stand my ground.”
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