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 my request to shadow his campaign, however, because I am a woman.

In two phone calls this week, Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, told this reporter that I would need a male colleague to accompany me on an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip, saying 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.

Robison said the campaign simply “can’t risk it.”

“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 my covering his campaign comes despite the fact that I broke the story of his becoming the the first Republican to announce a bid for governor in December. Later that month, I also broke a story about Republican Party operatives offering him money to run for a different office. Since his announcement, I have 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 in an 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.

“Anyone who votes (Democratic) in ’18 is either ignorant or evil. There is no excuse for supporting killing babies or open borders. If that offends U, I’ll pray for U but I won’t apologize,” he wrote on Twitter last December.

Larrison Campbell

Mississippi Today requested a ride-along with Foster in late June. On July 7, Robison, the campaign manager, in his response, suggested joining the candidate on an upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast and Laurel. At the end of that first phone call, in what he acknowledged was a “weird request,” Robison told me 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 my experience covering Mississippi politics; Tuesday, Robinson was informed that this reporter would participate in the ride-along story alone.

Special Episode: What It’s Like Covering Mississippi as a Woman

He reiterated that the campaign couldn’t agree unless a male colleague were present — this despite my offering to wear a Mississippi Today press badge in plain view at all times.

Robison, however, insisted that trackers are trying to get any footage that would make the candidate look bad.

“They stand there with a phone in our face,” Robison said.

“I wish it weren’t the way it is. Unfortunately, this is the game we’re playing right now.”

Follow all things 2019 election with our #MSElex Voter Guide.

Rep. Foster uses ads, fundraising call to stoke firestorm over his campaign freezing out female reporter

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.