At a time when governors across the nation are either facing the threat of recall, sexual misconduct allegations, or mounting financial disinvestment thanks to prejudicial voting laws, a relatively drama-free Democratic primary in Virginia isn’t going to garner a sea of headlines. But it’s the same old-same old of the race that has gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy concerned.
Foy’s big competitor is Terry McAuliffe, a household name in Democratic politics. From 2014 to 2018, McAuliffe served as the Governor of Virginia. Before that, he served as co-chair to President Clinton’s successful 1996 re-election campaign, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and as Democratic National Committee Chairman. The Democratic machine is behind him, receiving endorsements from over a dozen state delegates and state senators as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“Career politicians like Terry McAuliffe are interested in maintaining the status quo,” Foy told Jezebel during a Tuesday evening phone call. “Virginians are calling for change.”
Foy is certain she’s the change agent Virginia needs.
Jezebel last spoke to Foy in January of 2020, when she was advocating for the ratification of the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment. As an elected member of the Virginia House of Delegates, her vote for ratification helped make Virginia the 38th and final state needed to move the controversial Amendment forward. While a litany of missed deadlines and revocations from five states continue to haunt the ERA’s future, Foy wasn’t interested in letting cynicism get the best of her. If anything, she was encouraged to do more.
Last May, Foy, an attorney and public defender, stepped down from the House of Delegates to focus on her gubernatorial run. Her campaign ads focus on the demand for affordable health care, criminal justice reform, gun safety, and our ongoing climate emergency, all framed as issues that Foy, a working mother of two, is eager to tackle. Her cadence is confident and her message is strong. She has received endorsements from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union, as well as Democracy for America, Feminist Majority PAC, March On, and the Sunrise Movement. And earlier this week, she got the endorsements of former NAACP President Ben Jealous and Rep. Lauren Underwood. But Foy is in a crowded field where McAuliffe’s name recognition is aiding his dominance in the polls.
According to Public Policy Polling, McAuliffe is enjoying a “commanding” lead: 42 percent of Democratic primary voters support McAuliffe, while Foy has the support of eight percent of voters, tied with her competitor State Sen. Jennifer McClellan. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter both have four percent of the vote. But 29 percent of voters are currently undecided, and it’s that voting pool that Foy needs to tap into if she wants to be competitive with McAuliffe. She likes her chances.
“We’ve had a lot to vote against for the last several years,” Foy said. “Now Virginians are looking for someone to vote for.”
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JEZEBEL: Let’s kick things off with one of the most important questions. How are you and how is your family during this pandemic?
JENNIFER CARROLL FOY: I’m doing well! The family is doing well! We’re trying to look at the silver lining of this health and economic pandemic and even opportunities to really spend some great quality time together. With the campaign, I’m really excited. We’re meeting people where they are, and we’re going to push and power through and build the most diverse coalition of supporters and voters in Virginia to be able to bring home the win while enjoying my mornings and my evenings with my babies and my husband.
On that note, as I’m sure you know, it’s Black Maternal Health Week. I read a piece that you wrote for Elle a couple of months ago about your experience with having a difficult pregnancy and having a rough postpartum period. What’s the significance of this week to you as a Black mother?
I think that Black maternal health is all about elevating the voices of Black women who have traditionally gone unseen, unheard, and not believed when complaints about our pain are made, or the status of our healthcare. And, you know, that what this is really about. It’s about identifying the fact that we still have so much work to do. Especially here in Virginia, where we are the tenth wealthiest state in the nation, but we have black women dying at third world country rates because of the Black maternal mortality phenomena, where discrimination, racism, and bigotry lends itself to inadequate healthcare and healthcare access for Black women. So, our pain isn’t believed, we are not provided the same type of care... that is a huge, huge problem, and it’s costing Black and brown women our lives. So I’m excited that you have this week so we can really talk about evidence-based policy solutions that we can implement to address this issue in a real way.
It really is two-pronged, in a sense. Even if Black maternal health issues are more prevalent for those who are underinsured and have less access to healthcare, it’s also impacting middle-class and wealthy Black women as well. I mean, everyone knows about what happened to Serena Williams. What do you think the state of Virginia needs to actually happen to close those gaps and end medical racism?
What we need is a principled working mom in the executive [seat] here in Virginia, because I don’t have to empathize with these issues, I understand it because it’s my lived experience. I can testify as to how the Black maternal mortality phenomenon crosses all barriers, and it’s intersectional in its implications. Educational attainment doesn’t matter, socioeconomic status doesn’t matter, the region you live in doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have Black skin. And that is the defining factor as to whether or not you will survive childbirth or you’ll die postpartum. That’s the problem.
We have some politicians of the past who champion this issue during campaign season, but then allow it to fall by the wayside. And that is one of the egregious issues that we have. So that’s why I’ll continue as governor to build on the progress I made as a legislator.
As a delegate, I passed a bill to help reduce Black maternal mortality by having doulas covered by Medicaid so that women can get the cultural competent care we deserve and the advocates that we need. Because—let me be clear—the reason that I’m still here is because of my husband, Jeff Foy, who refused to listen to the doctors, who said that my pain could not be normal. And when I dropped to my knees in pain that felt worse than labor, he picked me up, put me in the car, rushed me to the emergency room where I was immediately admitted and informed that if I stayed home a little while longer, I would have lost my life.
An advocate. And not everyone has it up.
There you go! But everyone shouldn’t have to have a Jeff Foy to stay alive and to stay healthy. What they do need as a governor who understands their challenges and who will be a principled person in power to ensure that we put forth bills and budgets that will address this issue in a real way.
Speaking of Black health, our collective blood pressure has gone up in the last couple of weeks thanks to this latest string of alleged police misconduct. There was the Army officer Caron Nazario who was pepper-sprayed in Virginia, and of course, the very recent case of Daunte Wright in Minnesota. Once again, police using unnecessarily violent police tactics during routine traffic stops. What are you going to do about it? What do you say to potential constituents who tell you they’re scared?
I’d remind them that, as a public defender, I’ve witnessed the two-tier criminal justice system we have: One that works well for the wealthy and well-connected, and one that works very differently for Black, brown, poor, and marginalized communities. So I’ve been fighting this fight from the courthouse to the statehouse. This is my, again, lived experience of trying to reform our criminal justice system and reform our police.
It didn’t matter that Second Lieutenant Nazario had committed his life to secure our freedom. The disrespect and harm that was directed towards him was beyond shameful. And so when I watched the video of the incident, I was reminded of all the men and women that I represented as a public defender that had similar things happen to them. But there were no body cameras. And as we saw, the police reports were gravely different than what we saw with our own two eyes. But we also have to remind ourselves, what about the times when the cameras are off? Or a person doesn’t have the frame of mind to think “let me record this incident” or “let me travel to a gas station that’s well lit” [like Nazario did]. So, when I watch these things, I am moved to protest, and my protest is in passing policy that’s going to ensure that these things don’t happen. So we no longer have the killing of brown and Black people on our streets due to racial injustice. And we’re going to do that through prevention and accountability.
But accountability is what is most important. And that’s why I do support ending qualified immunity here in Virginia, because everyone has to follow the law and no one is above it. And that is very, very important. But I also support ensuring that our attorney general office here in Virginia investigates quickly, thoroughly, independently any reports of excessive force and deaths that occur while in police custody. And so that’s what’s important. There is an appearance of impropriety when you’re having police officers investigate themselves, so that’s why it is important to have that third party come to be the eyes and ears and to investigate these instances in a real way. Those are the ways that we’re going to transform our justice system and accountability here in Virginia. And that’s why I’m running, because politicians of the past have made those kinds of promises, but when they were governor, nothing happened. Right. We need a new leader with a clear vision and bold ideas to address the issues of racial injustice and have the uncomfortable conversations about racial reckoning that we have not had here in Virginia in a real and robust way.
So what do you say to a prospective constituent who continues to see this violence and doesn’t see police officers getting reprimanded? I mean, not long ago news broke that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake won’t face any discipline. It’s so demoralizing that this violence still happens even when things like police body cameras and other methods that claim to increase accountability are implemented. What can you say to people to reassure them that this can’t be the status quo?
So, what you’re witnessing now is the effect of politicians of the past who want to nibble at the edges, who want to put bandaids on our issues, getting us from one crisis to the next. And while body cams, for example, are a good thing, it’s not everything. It will not resolve the issues that we’re talking about. What it does is memorialize what has happened in the past.
But what we also need to do is ensure that there is true accountability, because that is the way that we are going to stem the tide—if not extinguish—the killing of Black and brown people by the people who are sworn to serve and protect. Once people know that they will be brought to justice and the full weight of the justice system will be brought down on them...that is what is going to be most impactful and most influential, because it’s not only about the prevention piece and training—which I do think is important, and that’s why I helped pass legislation to ensure our officers are trained in crisis intervention, and bias, and de-escalation—but it is also about passing a bill to prohibit the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers—in my bill that I passed—so we don’t have the Eric Garner situation here in Virginia. It’s about helping to pass the ban on no-knock warrants so we don’t have a Breonna Taylor situation in Virginia.
But if we do, then as governor, I’ll ensure that I will end qualified immunity to hold bad actors criminally responsible as well, because no one is above the law. I’ll also make sure the attorney general’s office acts on those independent investigations to quickly and thoroughly investigate complaints of excessive force and deaths in police custody. And that is very, very important.
Those are just some examples of the bold, transformational change we have to bring to Virginia. But, you know, I have some opponents in this race who refuse to act, who refuse to move, who have had instances of police brutality happen in Virginia on their watch, and they refused to even ask for an independent investigation. So that’s the difference. Those are the choices that Virginians have and the choices they need to make. And I am confident that they’re going to make the right choice.
The average American isn’t into the nitty-gritty of Virginia politics like you are. So how about some flash-in-the-pan questions? Like, why are you running? Why are you better than your main competitor, Terry McAuliffe?
I’m running because I was raised in Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg was once an affluent African-American community, but when the jobs closed and the businesses left, despair crept in. For so long, communities like my hometown have been ignored, neglected, and left behind. And you still have people working 40 hours a week and bringing home $14,000 a year and people who are cutting up prescription drugs to make them last longer because it’s all they can afford to do. My journey for governor began when my grandmother, who raised me, had a stroke and became a quadriplegic. I had to sit at my dining room table and decide if I was going to pay for our mortgage that month or for the medications keeping my grandmother alive.
And so knowing the power of passing policies that can uplift all Virginians... that’s what I identified very early, and that’s why I dedicated my life to service. As a public defender, I represented people living below the poverty line and people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, and helped them navigate through a broken criminal justice system. I was a foster mom for eight years. I was a community organizer helping register people to vote so we can have real change here in Virginia. As a legislator, I passed bills and budgets to address the hurt and harm being felt in so many of our communities, things that will help working families in a real way. So running for governor is the next step to be able to uplift so many communities in Virginia so we all have an opportunity to thrive. And that is what this race is really about.
You know, when we were talking briefly about police brutality and things happening under people’s watches, I wondered if you were making an allusion to your competitor, McAuliffe. He has already Governor of Virginia before, he’s received the endorsement of the current Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who people know because of that blackface controversy a couple of years ago. What should something like that signal to Virginia voters?
I think that it signals to people that I am the candidate who will be the new face of Democratic leadership here in Virginia. I am focused on moving Virginia forward and not back. And yes, it is true that I’m running against Terry McAuliffe, the former governor who has said that Confederate monuments are Virginia’s heritage and they have a place in a home here under his administration. We’re not the same Virginia of five or eight years ago. You know, it’s really about assuring that we have the clean air and to breathe and clean water to drink that we so deserve, whereas my opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has taken money from Dominion Energy, a fossil fuel company, hand over fist, while they try to build a compressor station through a historically Black community called Union Hill. It’s about standing up to end mass shootings here in Virginia while my opponent has made backroom deals with the NRA, making us all less safe.
So I think this race is not a contest for who has the most money, or the most connections, or who has the coziest relationships to special interests. It’s a contest for who will fight the hardest for Virginians. And I can say that I have the record of doing just that: committing myself to working families, giving a voice to the voiceless, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. And that’s what we need. We need a working mom representing the working families in Virginia. Someone who has a stellar record for doing what’s right and standing shoulder to shoulder with the people, not special interests. It’s about who’s forward-looking vision will inspire Virginians to vote. Our candidacy does just that.
I was looking at some of your new endorsements: You’ve got former NAACP president Ben Jealous, as well as freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood. Virginia has changed a lot in the last decade, and it seems like you’re really promoting a new Virginia, but is that kind of bold new vision something that voters are excited about? There are probably a lot of people thinking, “Well, I know of Terry McAuliffe, I voted for him last time, so...” Is that something you’re concerned about?
When I’m having a conversation with Virginians, they’re excited about the progressive gains that we’ve made, dismantling voter suppression, assuring women’s access to choice, having more money towards our education system. But Virginians also understand that this has happened because of the new wave of Democratic leadership that has flooded over Virginia, and I’m excited to help lead that charge and be a part of that movement. And so we will only continue to build on that if we move forward and not back.
And so career politicians, like Terry McAuliffe, are interested in maintaining the status quo, but Virginians are calling for change. And they want someone who understands their problems, who has walked in their shoes just like I have. And while I applaud Terry McAuliffe for his past service, we are not the Virginia of eight years ago. Out-of-touch, career politicians are the last people Virginians need at the top. We’ve had a lot to vote against for the last several years. And now Virginians are looking for someone to vote for. And that is someone who has dedicated her life to public service, who understands the struggles that they have, who has a record of getting things done and fighting for everyday Virginians no matter what. Helping to pass Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia, Medicaid expansion to over 500,000 Virginians, helping to diversify our teacher workforce and clean up toxic coal ash... those are the things I’ve done, and I’m just getting started.
If we’re going to keep our majority and win in November, we have to ensure that we have a candidate who will inspire people to show up at the polls.
What are the top three things that the average Virginia voter is worrying about from day-to-day?
Virginians are concerned mainly about how we’re going to get out of this pandemic and what things look like on the other side, and that’s why my top properties are getting shots in arms and people in jobs. We need a successful post-covid economy that uplifts our small businesses who are the economic engine here in Virginia while ensuring that our workers are not left behind. For example, fighting for two 15 dollar minimum wage that begins as soon as we can make it happen. Plus, shoring up protections as we move into this clean green energy economy so that we don’t leave our workers behind and there’s a just transition. Also, putting project labor agreements on our onshore-offshore wind projects, our solar projects, our hydro projects, which are all extremely important.
I’m excited to say I have more union endorsements than any other gubernatorial candidate in this race.
That’s because the people who are building our roads, our bridges, and our schools stand with me because they know that I will stand with them. I think that people are excited for what’s on the horizon and for us to be able to address the inequities in our health care and our education and our economy and our environment. They know that that will happen with me as governor, because Terry McAuliffe had his chance. There’s a saying: Look to what someone has done to determine what they are going to do. So if we want more, if we want bigger, if we want better, we have to vote for it.
Okay, let’s say you won the Democratic primary and the gubernatorial race. You’re the new Governor of Virginia. Awesome. Cool. What is your top priority in your first 100 days of office?
So, first, to make sure there’s an equitable distribution of our vaccine and that people are getting shots and arms. I can tell you that building out my Rebuild For Virginia economic plan is going to be very, very important to uplift our small businesses in a real way. I can tell you that I will declare climate change a climate emergency here in Virginia to unlock the resources that we need to address this existential threat. And I’ll have an all-pro-choice cabinet. My cabinet will be reflective of the diversity of Virginia and ensure that every person who is in my administration understands the importance of choice and intersectionality. And I will be a firewall as governor as well to protect people’s access to reproductive healthcare here in Virginia.
So those are just some of the things that I look forward to getting done, including having a budget that fully funds education and ensures that all teachers are paid a minimum of $60,000 a year.