Waller, GOP guv hopeful and ex-chief justice, cites ‘common sense’ in also not meeting with women alone

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Just days after state Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, said he wouldn’t be alone with a woman not his wife, even in a professional context, a second Republican candidate for governor has said he, too, follows what’s known as the “the Billy Graham rule.”

On Monday, after the Republican Women’s Candidate Forum in Jackson, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. told Mississippi Today that he would not be alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, even in a personal or professional context.

“I just think it’s common sense. I just think in this day and time, appearances are important and transparency’s important, and people need to have the comfort of what’s going on in government between employees and people. And there’s a lot of social issues out there about that. My goal is to not make it an issue so that everyone’s comfortable with the surroundings and we can go about our business,” Waller, 67, said.

Last week, Foster ignited a national firestorm after he refused a request from this reporter to spend a day riding along with him on the campaign trail, unless this reporter brought along a male colleague.

Mississippi Today published a story calling that request sexist. In interviews and statements following the publication of that article, Foster cited “the Billy Graham rule.” That rule, the popularization of which is attributed to the late evangelist, says that a man cannot be alone with a woman he is not married to, including in a professional context.

Waller’s stance on Monday clarifies a response from his campaign last week. Asked if Waller would have made the same decision Foster’s campaign did in barring a female reporter from traveling with the candidate, the campaign responded: “We have a standing policy that a campaign staffer always staffs the candidate during interactions with the media so it’s a non-issue.”

On Monday, however, Waller said that in his 22 years on the state Supreme Court, he was never alone with any of his female colleagues, including female clerks or fellow state Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam.

“Perhaps momentarily, but I can’t think of an extended conference. But we certainly had a professional relationship and she’s a great justice,” Waller said in reference to Justice Beam. He added: “I tried to (always have someone else present). If I met with a clerk, I met with my clerks (together).”

Waller said he would not, however, ask a woman to provide the additional male colleague.

“In my situation I always made sure that I was in control of the situation — that’s the way I do business.”

Mississippi Today asked the campaign of Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is also running for governor and considered the front-runner, whether he follows the Billy Graham rule. His campaign replied: “Provided they are fair to our campaign, we treat all journalists the same.”

The campaign did not immediately respond to a follow-up request explicitly asking whether Reeves practiced the Billy Graham rule.

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. And since Foster’s support for the Billy Graham rule broke last week, many conservatives have voiced support for his position. Foster has incorporated his stance into fundraising emails and merchandise.

Whether Waller’s supporters will react the same way, however, is less certain. Since announcing his candidacy in February, Waller has courted both conservatives and moderates by advocating for such policies as increasing teacher pay and accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid.

Hood said he does not practice the Billy Graham rule.

“If I couldn’t meet with women alone to discuss issues important to them and to Mississippi, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. As Governor, women will play an important role in my administration. I will move to pass an equal pay law for women; continue to fight domestic violence against women; and provide economic opportunities in business and industry for women. And I will do all these things while meeting with women – alone if necessary – to hear their voices and champion their causes,” Hood said in an emailed statement.