State Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, during a campaign stop in July 2019
In recent weeks, in an attempt to better inform readers about candidates in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary, Mississippi Today has asked to shadow each contender seeking the GOP nomination.
Bill Waller, a former state supreme court chief justice, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves agreed to ride alongs with Mississippi Today reporter Adam Ganucheau.
The other candidate — state Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando — declined, however, because I am a woman.
In two phone calls this week, Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, said a male colleague would need to accompany this reporter on an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip because they believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair.
“The only reason you think that people will think I’m having a (improper) relationship with your candidate is because I am a woman,” this reporter said.
“Perception is everything. We are so close to the primary. If (trackers) were to get a picture and they put a mailer out, we wouldn’t have time to dispute it. And that’s why we have to be careful,” Robinson said Tuesday afternoon by phone.
Rival candidates or supporters hire trackers to follow campaigns and record candidates, hoping to catch them in compromising situations. In November, a tracker recorded a video of Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making a remark about attending a public hanging; the incident, which she later called a joke made national headlines.
The Foster campaign’s sudden uneasiness with this reporter covering his campaign comes despite the fact I broke the story of his becoming the the first Republican to announce a bid for governor in December. Later that month, this reporter also broke a story about Republican Party operative offering him money to run for a different office. Since his announcement, this reporter has also interviewed Foster on numerous occasions in the halls of the Capitol, over the phone and at events.
Foster, considered an underdog for the Republican nomination, is running to the right of his opponents to appeal to tea-party conservatives. He is known for his incendiary social media commentary, including outspoken support of the state flag, which features a Confederate battle emblem.
Mississippi Today requested a ride-along with the Foster in late June. On July 7, Robison, the campaign manager, called about joining the candidate on an upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast and Laurel. At the end of the conversation, in what he acknowledged was a “weird request,” Robison said I would need a male colleague to accompany me on the trip.
My editor and I agreed the request was sexist and an unnecessary use of resources given this reporter’s experience covering Mississippi politics; Tuesday, Robinson was informed that this reporter would participate in the ride-along story alone.
He reiterated that the campaign couldn’t agree unless a male colleague was present — this despite my offering to wear a Mississippi Today press badge in plain view at all times.
But Robison insisted that trackers are trying to get any footage that would make the candidate look bad.
“I wish it weren’t the way it is. Unfortunately, this is the game we’re playing right now.”