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Virginia Governor Candidate Says It’s Time To ‘Treat Poverty Like the Emergency It Is’

Jennifer Carroll Foy is a former public defender and state legislator who wants to overhaul school funding and extend an eviction moratorium until the end of 2022.

Jennifer Carroll Foy
Jennifer Carroll Foy Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jennifer Carroll Foy is running for Virginia governor this year with the crisis of inequality in mind. 

“Poverty has to be treated as the emergency that it is,” she told The Appeal.

Carroll Foy, a former public defender who served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2018 to 2020, is running on a platform that includes extending an eviction moratorium, changing zoning to balance density with affordable housing, addressing disparities in the quality of public education, and ensuring Virginia has a 100 percent net zero emissions standard as part of a broader climate change policy. 

In June’s open Democratic primary, Carroll Foy will face former governor Terry McAuliffe, an establishment stalwart and early favorite for money and party support. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, Delegate Lee Carter, and state Senator Jennifer McClellan are also vying for the office.

The race is worth watching, even outside of Virginia. Because the commonwealth is a battleground, the race will “set the tone and be a trend for what’s happening in the nation politically,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a clinical social worker and the founder and executive director of Marijuana Justice.

For too long, the commonwealth has been led by people who have prioritized the interests of the rich and powerful, Carroll Foy said, even as Virginia’s racial wealth gap grew and its economy lacked the kinds of jobs that could pull more people out of poverty.

Carroll Foy’s record illustrates her commitment to the issues of racial and economic equity. In the state legislature, she sponsored and passed a bill that was aimed at reducing Black women’s maternal mortality rates, as well as another bill that helped ensure immigrants had access to healthcare.

But advocates say that these issues go beyond just healthcare. An equity plan for public education that addresses class and race is essential for the commonwealth’s future, said Alexsis Rodgers, Virginia state director for domestic worker advocacy group Care In Action.

For Carroll Foy, this means restructuring the Virginia Board of Education’s Standards of Quality by allocating more funding to at-risk students and schools. Changing the funding formula at the state level, Carroll Foy hopes, would lead to better results for students who attend schools in lower-income areas. It’s a contrast with McAuliffe, whose plan would fund and implement the standards that already exist but not change them further.

And fixing the education system goes hand in hand with improving housing policy, said Quinton Robbins, director of operations at Richmond For All, a progressive organizing coalition in Richmond.

“We need a governor who’s going to fight for tenants, especially in the pandemic, we need to make sure their due process rights are respected, and we need to make sure that public housing residents are protected,” said Robbins. “Jennifer Carroll Foy has friends and family that live in public housing. And I think that gives us a lot of confidence that she’s going to fight for them.”

If sworn in next year, Carroll Foy plans to codify an eviction moratorium through to the end of 2022 and establish inclusionary zoning requirements. The latter would aim to balance the needs of the commonwealth’s growing population by requiring private developers to set aside and subsidize affordable housing. 

“The way that we get rid of our segregated schools is by desegregating our housing,” Carroll Foy said. “That’s how we address the inequities in our education system.” To help the commonwealth’s poorer communities, she also plans to tackle opiate addiction, unemployment, and child care costs. To do so, she said she’ll invest in mobile clinics, invest in and overhaul the Virginia Employment Commission, and prioritize paid family and medical leave. 

“When you have outcomes being determined by a person’s wealth or financial circumstances or your race and sometimes even your gender, that is problematic,” said Carroll Foy.

Inequity in the commonwealth is inextricably linked to race, and Virginia’s long history has not always bent toward justice. Racial justice and environmental justice are intimately tied together, particularly in Virginia, said Carroll Foy. She told The Appeal that as governor she would ensure that Virginia has a 100 percent net zero carbon emissions standard and that she would prioritize ensuring a forward-looking approach to environmental cleanup.

“One of the main reasons that Black and brown people are contracting and dying of coronavirus at a higher rate is because our negative health outcomes that directly correlated to the fact that if you’re Black or brown, you’re more likely to live near a landfill or a coal ash pond or a nuclear power plant or a pipeline,” Carroll Foy said.

Carroll Foy’s commitment to improving the lives of working families is rooted in her personal experiences.

Born in Petersburg, Virginia, a city with one of the highest child poverty rates in the commonwealth, Carroll Foy was raised primarily by her grandparents, especially her grandmother Mary Lee Carroll. 

When Carroll Foy was 18, Mary Lee suffered a health crisis. 

“My activism started when my grandmother had a stroke and became a quadriplegic and my having to sit at my dining table with my aunt, trying to decide if we’re going to pay for our mortgage that month or for the medications keeping her alive,” Carroll Foy said. “And that is when I realized I was a part of a community that had been ignored, neglected, and left behind.”

After attending Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Carroll Foy became a Virginia magistrate judge, but after observing the racial disparities in the criminal legal system she became a public defender in 2016. 

Brad Haywood, a chief public defender and the founder and executive director of criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia, supervised Carroll Foy at the Arlington public defender’s office through 2018, during the beginning of Carroll Foy’s legislative career. 

“We worked with her really closely on legislative advocacy during her time in the General Assembly,” said Haywood. “She was by far the strongest advocate for criminal justice reform in either chamber.”

As the first public defender ever elected to the Virginia General Assembly, Carroll Foy carried a bill that would have prohibited police use of chokeholds. Though the bill failed, it led to a compromise bill that limited its use. She was also a key player in helping to pass legislation ending the suspension of drivers’ licenses for nonpayment of fines if the person is poor. 

“But we still have work to do,” she said, pointing to marijuana legalization, better access to mental health resources, and community support for youth. “Those are the things that have to happen if we’re really going to address the social harms that have been caused by our backward laws here in Virginia.” 

To that end, Carroll Foy said she also intends to push for a reform of Virginia’s cash bail system and expungement of minor offenses. As governor, she plans to support legislation that would end punitive, automatic penalties like mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws, and to allow dismissal of charges if people meet certain prerequisites like community service or similar good behavior. 

“I hope that all of our candidates for governor are putting forward that kind of vision because it’s past time,” said Rodgers of Care In Action. “We marched, we voted. We have demanded better policies when it comes to criminal justice.”

Virginia is poised to legalize marijuana this year, and with that move will come a new set of challenges. Lawmakers must prioritize undoing the harm that the drug war wrought on Black communities, said Higgs Wise of Marijuana Justice, which means investing in communities destroyed by the enforcement of punitive drug laws and supporting people who were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses as they re-enter society. 

While Carroll Foy is an ally in that fight, said Higgs Wise, McAuliffe is not. 

“I really haven’t heard a lot from Terry McAuliffe about marijuana and equity for Black folks,” Higgs Wise said. “But Terry McAuliffe was terrible on the death penalty. He was awful on racial justice and environmental justice.”

McAuliffe has made much of his personal opposition to the death penalty, and today says he supports its abolition, but critics note that he presided over three executions as governor, refusing clemency. “Terry McAuliffe was always for the death penalty,” said Higgs Wise, “[he] was actually one of the biggest resisters to advocates in criminal justice during his term.” 

The former governor also tried to pass legislation to order lethal injection drugs through confidential pharmacies if needed, a move that, in the words of anti-death penalty activist Reverend Marc Boswell, ran “a very real risk of horrific and botched executions.”

The primary contest is already exposing fault lines in the Democratic Party in Virginia and around the country, according to Higgs Wise. Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi is nonetheless endorsing McAuliffe, throwing her institutional weight behind his candidacy.  

“He can really pull out any piece of power and use it against these other candidates that are really trying to make change,” said Higgs Wise, who has not endorsed anyone in the race.

McAuliffe’s gubernatorial record and the criticism he experienced for receiving funding from corporate interests could dog him. And the centrist aspect of the Democratic Party he represents may not be a winner this time around, Carroll Foy hopes. 

“The wealthy and well-connected have had a lot of representation in Richmond,” she said. “It’s time for a working person to represent working families in Virginia.”

Although a Democrat who opposed marijuana legalization and supported the death penalty might have worked as recently as four years ago, McAuliffe is facing off against elements in Virginia politics that have pushed the party in a far more progressive direction. And though he has moved to the left on those issues, to his critics he still represents the kind of power politics that the Democratic Party establishment has endorsed for decades but may be on the way out in 2021. 

“Terry McAuliffe is the machine that we’re very opposed to,” said Richmond For All’s Robbins. 

Richmond For All hadn’t picked a candidate at the time of Robbins’ interview, but he said the coalition believes Carroll Foy could unite a “progressive majority.” The coalition has since endorsed her. Goad Gatsby, a Richmond activist and longtime observer of Virginia state politics, doesn’t generally make endorsements but believes Carroll Foy “really stands out.” Haywood of Justice Forward Virginia is backing Carroll Foy.

“I frankly think she’s going to win,” said Haywood. “This is going to surprise a lot of people.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Richmond For All’s status on making an endorsement. The coalition has endorsed Carroll Foy. An earlier version of this article also misstated Brad Haywood’s position. He is the chief public defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.