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Robert Foster made a promise to his high school sweetheart before they got married: he would never be alone with another woman he wasn't related to under any circumstances, be it in an office, a farm or a truck.
On Sunday that meant denying a female journalist's request to ride along with him as he campaigned to become Mississippi's next governor — unless she agreed to bring a male colleague along for the trip.
"I put my wife and my Christian beliefs above anyone else's feelings or opinions ... and I did not want there to be a perception that I was riding with another female and that something promiscuous was going on or anything like that," Foster, a first-term Republican state representative, explained to NPR.
The reporter, Larrison Campbell, who writes for Mississippi Today, began covering Foster even before he formally announced his gubernatorial aspirations. The request to join him on the campaign trail for a full day of events was part of the news outlet's election coverage that would include similar profiles of all the GOP candidates vying for a win in the Republican primary on August 6.
Initially, Foster's team agreed. But as the day approached his campaign manager sent an email with a caveat saying Campbell needed to bring a male colleague to accompany her on the 15-hour trip, she told NPR.
"It was so out of left field, I didn't think it was going to be real," Campbell said.
After some attempts to appease Foster — Campbell said she offered to prominently display her press badge throughout the day and avoid appearing in photographs with the candidate — he insisted that sitting in the front seat of his truck with not-his-wife could put his political career in peril. In the end, Mississippi Today decided to pull the plug on the interview and write about why they would not be covering Foster's day on the road.
"My editor and I agreed the request was sexist and an unnecessary use of resources given this reporter's experience covering Mississippi politics," she wrote.
Campbell also noted that she has broken several stories regarding Foster's run and interviewed him "on numerous occasions in the halls of the Capitol, over the phone and at events."
It didn't take long for the story to gain national attention.
In the days since, Foster has continued to "stick to his guns" saying "perception is reality in this world." He maintains that he's been dogged by professional political trackers for the last seven months who are itching to get something incriminating on him. "They're looking to try and manipulate anything they can to try to hurt my character and hurt my chances in this campaign," he said.
When asked if a female colleague of Campbell's would have provided a sufficient protective buffer to ward off the appearance of impropriety, Foster said, "Two women in the vehicle that I don't know, that I'm not personally connected to as family, is not any better than one other woman, in my opinion."
He added that it is an especially bad time for men to be alone with women in light of the #MeToo movement. "I'm not going to ever put myself in a position where a female could come back and say that I made advances on her, I tried to assault her and there's no witness there to say that did not happen."
Foster also disagrees with the news outlet's position that requiring male chaperones for women — reporters or otherwise — who intend to be alone with men is sexist. Instead, he believes it is the Christian thing to do, noting the practice, known as the Billy Graham rule, was popularized by the Christian evangelist who refused to spend time alone with any woman other than his wife, and also is followed by Vice President Mike Pence.
Campbell called that logic antiquated, trapped in an era in which politics was primarily a male space and women were not perceived as professional equals.
"You're only going to assume that it's an improper relationship if, when you look at me, you don't see a woman doing her job, you see a woman who is a sexual object," she said.
"Politics has long been a traditionally male space" and by excluding women from engaging in it because they refuse to have a keeper is saying "a woman in that context is somehow out of place. She doesn't belong," Campbell said.
What she finds most unjust about the Billy Graham rule and the men who follow it, she said, is that puts the onus on women to make men feel comfortable and to explain why they deserve to be there. "Rather than wanting to do the work that they really should do to confront things that are uncomfortable, they're asking women to change. They're asking women to accommodate them."
"And that is deeply problematic," she added.
She also questions Foster's ability to serve as governor given his refusal to meet with women one-on-one. She noted Gov. Phil Bryant's top policy director and top attorney are both women. "Is somebody capable of governing a state if they can't be alone in a room with a woman?" she asked.
The story about the story has thrust Campbell into the national spotlight and while she said she would prefer not be there, she is glad it has brought the issue to the fore. "I think women everywhere experience this," she remarked, adding that she has heard from a variety of women in different professions who have experienced some form of gender discrimination.
Foster has also found an upside to the publicity.
As Campbell and a colleague reported Wednesday, "The Foster campaign was boosting his Twitter responses with paid advertisements."
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