AFP editorial board interview with Jennifer Carroll Foy
AFP editors Chris Graham and Crystal Abbe Graham spoke via Zoom last week with Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy.
The following is a transcript, lightly edited, for clarity, of that conversation.
Chris Graham: You’ve released an economic recovery plan for what we hope will be the post-COVID era, certainly by the time November rolls around, and then the next governor sworn in next year. I think one thing that’s been exposed through the stress test of the pandemic, certainly, among many things, was the inadequacies of unemployment insurance system. I know that was a really important part of your plan. Take us through that, and some of the highlights, and what you think the important things are that we need to be thinking about post-COVID once we get there.
Jennifer Carroll Foy: We saw a lot of the opportunities we have in our unemployment insurance system. And even as a delegate, one of my number one constituent concerns was they have applied, they had heard nothing, or they were asked to pay back money they didn’t think they otherwise should have had to pay back. So it was just a lot of issues. I tried to look holistically at ways that we need to address it and fix it. And one of the main issues is communication – making sure that there’s enough people there to actually sift through the applications, communicate with people about the missing documentation, and keeping them updated on what’s going on.
Putting forth that additional funding to expand the amount of employees working for the VEC is desperately needed and necessary, but also having that automatic shut-on switch of once applications go over a certain amount, there’s automatic funding that’s made available, so we can immediately bring on the people that’s necessary to take on these issues, instead of having to wait for a session or a special session for a budget to be approved. That’s one of the things that we can be proactive on. In order to address the backlog, we need to address the communications issue.
And then also the fact that we pay one of the lowest amounts per week for unemployment. It’s absolutely atrocious. Surrounding states pay upwards of $400 a week or more, and ours is around $300. And so, making sure that we add at least 100 more dollars a week. I mean, that would significantly help people be able to stay afloat and to survive this challenging time. And if we do you have another economically strenuous time, to also help people to be able to stay afloat during that, too, with just a couple more dollars, we should at least be around the regional average for unemployment compensation. Those are some of the things that I propose and that I support and things we should do.
There’s also a bill that’s pending, one of my friends, Del. Sally Hudson has proposed, that says, if the employer is challenging unemployment, the person should still get paid while the investigation is pending. That’s something else that’s been hurtful and harmful to people who are hurting now. Because if the employer contests it, then there’s a lapse in time for the documentation to be requested and provided, and that person is about to be homeless, they’re hungry, there’s needs that need to be met. If a person applies, and then the employer wants to contest it, that is totally fine within their rights, but money should still be paid out. And if it was wrongfully paid out, then Virginia will recover, in in the ways legally they are able to, the money that was that was incorrectly paid out. But, you know, we should always err on the side of help and relief than anything else.
Crystal Graham: One of the issues for Chris and I both and for this region has to do with kids in school, and the amount of time that they’re losing as far as education. While they are still getting some kind of online education, it’s just not the same. There have been studies that show that the impact on these kids is they are almost a generation lost. It’s going to be very hard for many of them to recover from the year that they’ve been out of school. I’m interested in what your plans are. What do you think the path forward is for our kids?
Jennifer Carroll Foy: One of the things I support right now immediately is having an extra quarter of school. Make it optional, not mandatory, but I’m not aware of any parents who will not send their kids to ensure that they’re getting that supplemental learning, and for some extending a supplemental is to address the deficits that they have because of virtual learning.
Our teachers and students are doing the best they can with what they have, but virtual learning is not optimal, especially for kids who are English as a second language learners, or who are disabled or autistic. I’m making sure that we have that, and we have the funding to do it.
We’ll also have to look at other ways to address what has happened and deficiencies in our children’s education and learning, whether that means extending the day by an hour, whether that means adding more days to the school year, in order to supplement and help and get our kids where they should be. I would subscribe to any of those options, but doing nothing is not an option.
Chris Graham: Having read through your bio, we come from very similar backgrounds in some ways. I grew up in a single parent home in a trailer park. Crystal grew up in lower middle class environment with a family that eventually broke up as well. We know that you were one of the first female students at VMI on a full scholarship and worked your way up. Education was a great equalizer for each of us. As the the new governor working with the General Assembly, what can we do to ensure that our education system gives more opportunities to people like us to have a chance to succeed?
Jennifer Carroll Foy: In some parts of Virginia, our schools are just as segregated as they were in the ‘60s. Look at Petersburg and Colonial Heights. I came from Petersburg. We didn’t have books to take home. We had unlicensed teachers in the classroom. We were doing worksheets in 12th grade science class. I had to have a tutor in almost every class my first year at Virginia Military Institute. Whereas Colonial Heights, which is a majority-white district, had the best of schools, best teachers, best technology.
Number one, I support collective bargaining for teachers. Because in order for our teachers to have what they need to be successful for our students, they need to get the pay that they deserve. They need protections, especially with their instruction time that they need. I fully support collective bargaining for state employees, especially our teachers.
The second is modernizing our standards of quality. We are not meeting our constitutional obligations by fully funding education the way we should, and the state picking up majority of the purse as we supposed to, and relying so much on localities. You have communities like Petersburg and Portsmouth and Pulaski who don’t have the property taxes to supply to the schools the necessary funding that should be there. That’s where you see huge deficits.
The third, going back to the previous question also, is that our kids need those social safety nets. I supported the legislation to increase the number of school counselors we have, and in the budget fully funding those positions. It shouldn’t be one counselor per 1,000 children. It needs to be one to at least 250, and that’s still not enough, really. But those are the things that will help so they can readily identify children who are depressed, and who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who are being bullied and who need those services, who are being sexually abused at home. That’s what they’re there for, not only for college prep, but other issues, too.
Another priority is expanding early childhood education. That’s where the real divide begins. Pam Northam has worked to get more federal block grants to Virginia, subsidizing more and getting more 3- and 4-year-olds in full daycare, which is important. Rethinking traditional early childhood education, it doesn’t have to be in a brick and mortar classroom. That’s what makes it so cost-prohibitive. We can do it in creative ways – church basements, YMCAs, community centers
Crystal Graham: Even though suicide rates continue to increase, the amount of funding that actually goes to mental health resources continues to decline. What can be done at the state level, and what you can do as governor, to try to push through some initiatives that help in the mental health area, because post-COVID, this is going to be more necessary than even before.
Jennifer Carroll Foy: One of the most disappointing things in ways that we treat mental health here in Virginia is that a lot of people with mental health don’t get seen or diagnosed or treated until they enter a criminal justice system. As a former public defender, and as a court-appointed attorney now, I see that every single day. What has to happen is that I will invest in diversion programs in a way that Virginia has never done. We’ve made many promises, but have not made good on it. That means investments in community service boards.
When a person is picked up for having a mental health emergency, they’re not sent to jail or to a magistrate judge. They’re sent to a community hospital, or they’re seen by community service board who can then get them inpatient or outpatient care, whatever their needs required. But right now, that’s not an option, because we don’t have the beds, and we don’t have the resources. We need the people to be able to evaluate them and get that done. Diversion programs is number one, getting people access to care.
The second piece of that is, let’s say, for instance, they do move over under the criminal justice system. I will expand mental health dockets in every court in Virginia. We’ve seen that is how we drop the recidivism rates. A person charged with disorderly conduct, trespass, petty theft, they walk into a store, they’re hungry, they take something, they’re talking to the voices in their head, and they’re seen as an undesirable, so people call the police on them, instead of getting them to help. Making sure that we have those mental health dockets, that is the way we bring our recidivism rate, by giving them the collateral, the support that they need, that they otherwise don’t get.
And then they also need to be connected to housing. And they also get connected to clinics so they can get their prescription pills. All of those things will help address many of those challenges.
One of the things we have to pay attention to is that there’s marginalized communities, poor communities, black and brown communities, rural communities, who have bear the brunt of overpolicing, the war on drugs, disinvestment. Now that we have these wonderful revenues, such as with casino revenues, revenues from the legalization of marijuana, and we’re going to continue to build these things out more revenue streams, we need dedicated funding to the programs that are needed the most. Making sure that we have those mental health programs in the communities, funding the community services boards, and ensuring those communities have access, is so important
Chris Graham: We want to ask about racial justice issues. Something that we’ve been focused on, concerned about, since last spring, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, our fear was, what happens when the momentum goes away, and we have to still do things after? Our fear was, and I think maybe we’re seeing this, that we would agree to take a few statues down, but then we wouldn’t do anything substantive. What are your thoughts on that? What can we do to try to revive the momentum that we had last summer and build upon it in the future?
Jennifer Carroll Foy: I’m so happy that you said it in the way that you said. It was right on point. Because what I constantly say is that, listen, while I do believe the remnants of the Confederacy and hatred and bigotry need to come down, that those no longer reflect the values of Virginia’s anymore, let’s really talk about and get to the root causes. Because it’s easier to dismantle monuments than it is to dismantle systems and inequities – in our healthcare system, environment, education, in our economy, you name it.
That’s my protest. I don’t really protest by marching with the Black Lives Matter movement. I protest by passing bills and budgets that are going to undo the hurt and harm to so many communities.
I’ve passed bills to reduce the black maternal mortality rate by making doula care covered by Medicaid. This makes sure that Black women who die four times at a higher rate than our counterparts strictly due to implicit bias receive the culturally competent care and advocacy that they need and deserve. Do things like end hair discrimination, so Black and Brown people can be their true selves and not be discriminated against or fired and lose their job for what naturally grows out of their scalp.
Passing a bill to end black girl school pushout. Working with the National Women’s Law Center to pass a bill that establishes in Virginia, and it’s the first in the nation, that no dress school dress code can discriminate, or prohibit, braids, locks or head wraps or religious headgear like hijabs from being worn in school.
So many of our young, marginalized children were being targeted and harassed because of their culture, or how they decided to express themselves, in a way that was not distracting, that was not causing a problem, but because of people’s bias, and what we perceive as normal or acceptable or professional.
I carried a bill to have a $15 minimum wage that is tied to the index, where we know the majority of the people who have been harmed the most from COVID-19 are Black and Brown women, because we make up the majority of retail and hospitality fields, which have been harmed the most, and we’re more likely to make minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. So, trying to raise a family on $14,000 a year. That’s the expectation here in the Commonwealth, but we need to change that. We call people essential workers, but when they look at their paychecks, it says that they’re expendable. That’s what we have to change.
Passing the bill to end pregnancy discrimination. Demanding and requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for women, which we saw women of color are more likely to be hurt and harmed by that. I was the chief co-patron on the Equal Rights Amendment, and it was my resolution that passed making Virginia the 38th state to enshrine women’s equality. And that helps Black and Brown women the most, because Black women are paid 60 cents to a white man’s dollar, while Latinas 50 cents and indigenous women less than that.
When you talk about who’s out here doing the work, who’s raising the narrative and having these uncomfortable conversations about race and equity and what that means, that’s what I’m doing.
One of the things I’m most proud about is my stance with unions, because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the last things he was fighting for was equal pay for sanitation workers, because he said it doesn’t matter if you have a seat at the lunch counter if you can’t afford what’s on the menu. Economic equity is really the key to addressing the racial wealth gap, and true equity among the races here, and not only in Virginia, but across our country.
Something I’m really trying to focus on is helping SWAM businesses. I have committed as governor to allocating 45 percent of our discretionary spending for goods and services towards SWAM businesses. Also creating a commission whose sole purpose is to look into capital resources and funding and mentorship and programs that will help uplift our SWAM businesses also. As a delegate, I passed the bill that says, if you’re a SWAM business, your bid for a utility contract, which is one of the highest contracts that we have in that state, can be 3 percent higher than everyone else’s, and it’s still considered to be reasonable and prudent, to make them more competitive, to have them have more access. That’s what it’s about. I’m excited to continue to build on that to help our marginalized communities more and continue to do the work that’s unfinished.
Crystal Graham: Virginia has done a lot already as far as commonsense gun laws. As governor, are there other items in gun violence reform that you would like to see moved forward in our state?
Jennifer Carroll Foy: We passed past seven of our eight top common sense gun safety bills a year ago. We did universal background checks, one gun a month, all of those great things. But we were not able to get the assault weapons ban passed. That is something that I will definitely push and advocate for.
I don’t only talk about ending mass shootings like the ones in Virginia Tech, in Virginia Beach. I also talked about the everyday urban gun violence that’s seen in places like Petersburg and Portsmouth. Investing in those violence interruption programs is very important, because there is rampant violence, and gun violence is happening, and these communities have gone ignored and neglected for far too long. But if they were to enter more affluent and white communities, then we’ll be having a different conversation. That is something that I am so aware of, with friends from high school being victims of gun violence in our community.
Those are the things that I will do, I’ll get done.
Chris Graham: I’m reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, and I’m in the part right now where he’s talking about when he ran when he decided to run for State Senate, and then when he decided to run for Senate, and then he decided to run for president. And it’s a relatively short period of time in his life. But as he’s making these decisions to make these runs, and I kind of can see a parallel in one sense with you in 2017. You’re pregnant with twins, and you decide, I’m going to run for the House of Delegates, and it wasn’t easy. You won your primary by 12 votes, and then you serve two terms, and you’re 39 years old. You know, certainly, God willing, you have a long time you can you have a chance to do this. But he had the same issues. He was a young man running for State Senate, Senate and then president. But he said, you don’t pick the opportunity, the opportunity picks you. Is there something similar for you in this, a sense of, you know, yes, you could quote, wait your turn, but is that the right way to think of it? Or is it more, the opportunity is there, and kind of demands that you make this run?
Jennifer Carroll Foy: Something my husband says to me all the time, he’s like, Jen, when are you going to take your cape off? It’s something that has been in me for a very long time. I am in awe that you saw the parallels, because many other people are saying that to people. They say, you’re a firebrand, upstart, you’re new, you’re taking on this machine, and you’re unafraid. How is that possible?
I say, well, you know, I’m built for this, I’m built for this, because I’m always ready to meet the moment.
One of the things that disturbs me the most is unfairness and injustice. That’s what moved me from going to be a magistrate judge to being a public defender. It wasn’t the pay. It was the fact that people in Richmond who kept coming before me were Black and Brown, and you are more likely to be held in jail if you were poor and innocent than wealthy and guilty. I had a problem with the system. So I said, you know what, I can continue to be a part of the problem, or I can do something about it.
When I found out that there are colleges that I couldn’t attend, just because I was female, and I heard the voice of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she said that women can do all things if given the opportunity, I didn’t blink twice, and jumped at the opportunity to be one of the first women to ever graduate from one of the top military colleges in this country.
And again, in 2017, when I saw Trump being elected, the most incompetent, racist, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic person, being elected the leader of the free world, and to see a lot of their rhetoric down in Richmond, with the transvaginal ultrasound bill, the constant attacks on women, I decided to do something about it. And even though I was pregnant with twins, even though I was outraised four to one, even though my opponent had just previously lost this seat by 127 votes, and he was the establishment candidate, he had the House Democratic Caucus leaders endorse him and support him, none of that mattered. Because I’m doing this, because it’s the right thing to do. I am doing this because it’s needed, necessary. I never feel like I need permission to do what’s right.
I was taught by my grandmother at a very young age, you always put service above self, and if you have it, you have to give it. It wasn’t a ‘but,’ right? It wasn’t a caveat. ‘But’ if you have enough money, ‘but’ if there’s a road to win, ‘but’ if only if you’re the favorite. None of those things. It’s never steered me wrong. Once I’m led to do something, I don’t question it. I just go for it. I go all in, I put my head down. I work hard. And I know I’m fighting for the right reasons. That’s what matters.
It’s never failed me in the past. I don’t think it will fail me now. And in this moment, I think Virginia is ready to move forward and not back. They’re looking for a new leader who’s right for this moment. We want to shake up the status quo in politics as usual. And you can’t do that by recycling same old politicians and the same old policies.
I’m excited that people say it can’t happen, because what I always like to say is everything is impossible until it’s done.
Transcript edited by Chris Graham