In 2019, Jess Foster is running for Virginia Delegate for District 88. She took some time to talk to Majority60 about why she’s running, what her priorities are, and how she plans to make history in the Virginia House of Delegates.
They were cumulative; the reasons why Jess Foster decided to run for elected office in Virginia. The current administration instituted a “Muslim ban,” it instituted a despicable family separation policy, and attacked health care for millions of Americans—one of whom was Foster’s law partner who would be impacted directly by the policy of allowing insurance companies to discriminate against people with so-called pre-existing conditions. But when I spoke to Foster over the phone, there was a moment that she described where it sounded like a decision point.
“My daughter was starting kindergarten and I went to orientation in August and I remember sitting across from the kindergarten teacher…” It was a digression. Seeing the classroom and lockers, where her daughter was going to be entrusted to the care of another for hours out of every day, in that moment a startling question popped into her mind: “I’m looking over at this woman wondering to myself, is she going to take a bullet for my kid? When you ask yourself that, it’s shocking. And then my daughter started learning how to hide in the bathroom with 19 of her classmates. And I realized [the] Sandy Hook [massacre] was 6 years ago. And the only thing that has changed is that children are preparing to be shot at. That’s the only thing that’s changed. And that’s unacceptable to me.”
Foster didn’t try to make the case that she had all of the answers. But she did say that Republicans in the VA House of Delegates failed in their duty to ask the right questions. “My husband is a responsible gun owner. We have firearms in the house,” she told me. “I hope this lends me some credibility on the subject.” Foster, after speaking with police officers, recommended beginning with a narrow approach. She wants to empower family members and friends to apply for a temporary order to remove a firearm from a person who is a danger to themselves or others. “I approach guns from a law enforcement perspective. I approach it from the perspective of a criminal defense attorney.”
“A couple of years ago we had a Woodbridge police officer, Ashley Guindon shot dead on her first day on the job. She responded with her field training officer to a domestic violence call [two other officers were injured and the wife of the shooter was also killed].” What would have happened differently had the man’s wife, or law enforcement been able to file a temporary removal order for his weapon?
But the dramatic increase in mass shootings, and the death of officers like Guindon, haven’t been enough to convince Republican delegates to hear out law enforcement officials. “Domestic violence calls are widely known to be the most dangerous calls that law enforcement officers respond to. There’s [currently] no way for a family member or a police officer who is concerned about the safety of the community or the safety of a person to remove a firearm,” Foster explained. “Focusing on these emergency removal orders will be one of my main focuses if elected to be a delegate. We can have due process. We can do it like we do any other protective order. But it would protect our law enforcement, it would protect the community, it would protect our children and I believe it would reduce death by suicide and any number of instances of gun violence.”
“Some people who want to run for office run because they want to be someone,” Foster told me. “And there are certain people who run because they want to do something and that is what ultimately led me to run.”
Running for office is one thing, but choosing which office to best run for is another. For Foster the decision was made easier: “When I found out that it was my delegate, [Mark Cole] who had been the one blocking the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for the last ten years, I felt compelled to do something about it,” said Foster. “If Virginia is the 38th state to ratify the ERA then we can move on to the next phase of this fight and essentially have a prohibition on sex-discrimination enshrined in the Constitution, and that’s very important to me.”
Foster is not running to “be somebody.” She is a successful attorney with her own firm, she’s a wife and a mother. It’s safe to say she already is “a somebody.” When she describes her work as an attorney, she describes it as advocacy. “People come to me with a problem to solve,” she told me. “And I see work as a delegate to be the same, only on a larger scale.” Foster wants to make sure that the House of Delegates is focusing on the future: Virginia’s children. “I’m a criminal defense attorney. I focus primarily on juvenile law. I work with children; I work with delinquent children, children who are in need of supervision, abused, abandoned, neglected children, all different types of children who are going through the system. However, as they’re coming through the court system, I’m working with them in some capacity or another and at the end of the day, if we’re not investing in our kids, we’re investing in the criminal justice system. And every dollar that is spent on a jail is not being spent on a child and every dollar that is not spent on a child is going elsewhere and will ultimately end up in the criminal justice system.” Instead of investing in locking up Virginians, Foster wants to focus economic on education and opportunity.
Because of this, I asked her what can be done about the ‘schools to prison pipeline’ and what prison reform might look like. The answers are illusive, but Foster leans hard into the importance of having productive conversations and listening to experts on the subject. She told me that we have to be asking the right questions. “Beyond being tough on crime, how do we be smart on crime?” The first step to finding the answer seems to be calling for a reality check. “It’s the minority communities and the poor communities that suffer the most. They are incarcerated at higher rates and minority communities are disproportionately incarcerated as compared to white people.” Foster argued that we start with non-violent drug offenses and so-called victim-less crimes. “We definitely have to focus more on rehabilitation rather than punishment and incarceration for drug offenders. That is a huge component of not only reducing the burden in the jails and reducing the burden on the actual criminal justice system but it will also have a positive impact on the minority communities who are so negatively targeted when it comes to drug offenses. Instead of mass incarceration, the focus should be on programs to get folks the help that they need so that they’re not using.” In terms of drugs as a business model, Foster suggested, “Maybe part of the answer lies in the decriminalization of marijuana. That would definitely have an impact on criminal justice reform.”
So, how do we get to turn the tidefrom punishment to rehabilitation for drug users? “We need to have a real conversation with the professionals in the areas [of rehabilitation to avoid recidivism] and see what they need,” said Foster. “I know that when I’m interacting with the community services board or folks who are involved in the rehab side of the criminal justice world, the overwhelming theme is; ‘we have no money, we have no funding. We’re understaffed, we’re overworked.’ Then there is this whole thing with the 30 day rehab. This is where we cycle people in for the 30 days and then they get kicked back out into the community and it simply doesn’t work. So we need to come up with a more comprehensive plan as to how we’re going to address these real issues and that can only be done by professionals who know what they’re talking about.”
For some time now one of the dominant issues in Virginia politics, and national politics, has been the expansion of Medicaid by the states as part of the Affordable Care Act. The 2017 Blue Wave elections in Virginia led to its enactment in the state covering around 400,000 Americans. The Medicaid expansion in VA was a huge victory for Democrats and I asked how Foster would work to continue improving the system.
“Any time you have an insurance company, which is a for-profit business, their main goal is to make profits and they’re going to try to do that the best way that they can and that is, in my perspective, mostly on the backs of sick people and poor people.” So in keeping with her can-do approach to governing, Foster suggests a narrow focus. “Billing practices are deceitful and in the generally assembly, it’s on my to-do list to crack down on these.” An issue that’s likely to garner her bipartisan support, Foster wants to protect the vulnerable and consumers in general from dishonest industry practices by demanding greater transparency and understandable descriptions of services to protect hard working individuals who don’t always have the time or inclination to chase down an explanation. “Billing practices like over-billing, bills with no details,” Foster explained can lead to overpayment by people who are already struggling. “There’s no transparency in [medical billing]. And people just get a bill and they have a tendency to pay it without calling the hospital, without taking that extra step that they shouldn’t have to do, to get those details. And then they have to go through a time consuming appeals process to get the bills rectified. That is definitely one of my priorities.”
Jess Foster is determined to enter the House of Delegates to get important work done. She’s ready to remove the barrier to an up or down vote on the ERA, to invest in education, to move away from mass incarceration to a criminal justice system that reduces recidivism and increases opportunity, and to make sure that people who are a danger to themselves, their family or their community have an opportunity to get the help they need before making a decision to use a firearm in a manner that they can’t come back from. She is asking the people of the 88th district for their vote.
Adam James is the editor in chief of Majority60.com, a political scientist and believer in the American Dream. He was an Obama For America fellow in 2012. Follow him at @AdamJamesM60