When asked to describe Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy in one word, Gloria Steinem doesn’t miss a beat. “Gift,” she says in a joint Zoom interview with the candidate. Current Virginia governor Ralph Northam can’t run for reelection. Virginia is the only state in the country where governors cannot serve two consecutive terms, leaving a wide-open race for his successor. Among the five Democratic candidates—former governor Terry McAuliffe, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, former delegate Carroll Foy, Delegate Lee J. Carter, and state Senator Jennifer McClellan—Carroll Foy earned Steinem’s endorsement for what Steinem says are two reasons: who she is and what she has accomplished as a former public defender and former Virginia state delegate.
“The combination of a mom and the military and everything that you learn in both—that’s kind of rare,” Steinem says. “Also, her record on all the issues of equality by gender and race and class. It just seemed like a no-brainer. She should be governor—that’s it.”
If Carroll Foy does become Virginia’s next governor, she will be the first Black woman governor in the history of the United States. But she’s used to firsts; she was one of the first Black women to attend the Virginia Military Institute after the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 it must admit women cadets. In 2017, she became the first public defender ever elected to the General Assembly. “And I believe [I am] the first, that I know of, woman to run for office while pregnant with twins, flipping a seat from red to blue while being outraced and out-endorsed,” Carroll Foy says, referring to her 2017 defeat of Republican Mike Makee to become delegate of Virginia’s Second District. “So being in the realm of firsts is nothing new. But like Vice President Kamala Harris said, my job is to make sure I am not the last.”
Virginia has trended blue since 2009, the last time a Republican won a state-wide race. If she wins the primary, Carroll Foy will be up against Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, who’s been endorsed by Donald Trump. “I don’t think [Youngkin will] resonate in key parts of the state—particularly those that are more populous as in northern Virginia,” says Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor and associate dean at Virginia Tech. “One could argue that that might present a liability to the Republican Party. But certainly Trump still has some support in the state…obviously turnout is very important, plus it’s pretty early to be certain.”
But the sharp divides in the current political climate, the lingering ramifications of the previous administration, and the ideological differences within the Democratic Party could keep Carroll Foy from securing a primary win. “One of the things I have read about the Virginia gubernatorial race is that people want a ‘safe candidate,’” Jalalzai says. “What do we mean by ‘safe candidate’? I think it alludes somewhat to race and gender but also [promotes] people who are perhaps less progressive with the Democratic Party.”
Jalalzai says that, not only would a Carroll Foy victory “offer an important, visible symbol of Black women’s progress in the political realm,” as Black women have long been a vital part of the Democratic Party’s success, but it would give Virginia, and by proxy the country, a chance for true systemic change. “There are perhaps more avenues for a governor to make a direct impact on the political system, and [because] Virginia is a very critical state, it would make it even more of an important achievement,” she explains. “Moreover, it might provide the best chance to make more progressive change that would benefit more Virginians—particularly groups whose voices may not be as prominent.”
From attacks on abortion access to the high maternal mortality rate (especially among Black women), to attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and the need for criminal justice reform, to inequities like environmental racism, gun violence, and access to education, it is, in fact, what is plaguing the people of Virginia that propelled Carroll Foy to enter the race. “That’s why this next election is so pivotal,” she says. “We don’t need a governor that empathizes; we need a governor that understands.”
Her hypothetical plans include protecting and expanding access to abortion care and other reproductive health care services. So far this year, 13 states have passed a total of 61 abortion restrictions, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, signaling a possible end to Roe v. Wade. Still, Carroll Foy intends to make Virginia a lifeboat in a sea of anti-choice states. “When you have a woman of color as governor she will have a pro-choice cabinet—an all pro-choice cabinet—because I understand the intersectionality of health care and public safety,” Carroll Foy says.
As a delegate, Carroll Foy co-patroned the Reproductive Health Protection Act, which removes all medically unnecessary barriers to abortion care. And as a gubernatorial candidate, she has promised to codify Roe v. Wade either through legislation or in the state’s constitution, expand abortion and reproductive care access to the trans community, and work to shut down so-called crisis pregnancy centers: clinics that spread disinformation about abortion care.
“I can tell you, there is [a fake clinic] in my hometown, which is predominantly African American. You see them in the Latinx community. You see them in the AAPI community. You see them targeting certain populations and segments,” Carroll Foy says. “And it’s absolutely offensive because what they’re saying is that you cannot be trusted to make your own decisions. Your body does not belong to you. And that goes against the fundamental principles of bodily autonomy and civil liberties.”
The former foster mom and mother of twin three-year-old boys knows it’s equally vital to ensure those who do have children have access to support. “One of the things that I am excited about is that people are talking about child care and child care providers as infrastructure, where traditionally we only thought about roads, bridges, broadband,” she says. “It’s really about creating an apparatus where people can go to work and be efficient, effective, work one job and put food on the table. So uplifting families in a real way by identifying that child care plays such a pivotal role in that.”
As a delegate, Carroll Foy helped lead the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the 38th and final state needed to add the amendment to the Constitution. And she recently released her Working Women/Working Families Plan, which includes paid sick and family leave, raising the minimum wage to $15 at an accelerated rate, repealing right-to-work laws, and appointing union members to various state boards and commissions.
Like many of her positions, she says her devotion to reproductive justice stems from her own experiences. Her principle opponent can’t necessarily say the same. McAuliffe left his wife while she was in labor to attend a party with then Washington Post columnist Lloyd Grove (“I was trying hard not to appear restless, but I am not one to sit still for long and soon I was going stir-crazy, which drove Dorothy nuts,” McAuliffe wrote in his 1997 book What a Party!). After the birth of his first son, which he did attend, he left his wife and newborn in the family car for 15 minutes to attend a fundraiser before driving home from the hospital. (In that instance, he writes, his wife was “in tears,” and although he “felt bad for Dorothy,” the fundraiser represented “a million bucks for the Democratic Party…Nobody ever said life with me was easy.”)
Carroll Foy, on the other hand, says she cannot and does not want to separate who she is as a parent from who she will be as governor. “Once we’re able to have a working mom as the next governor of Virginia, we’re going to see robust transformational things happen,” she says. “I know what it’s like raising two three-year-olds who refuse to be potty-trained during a pandemic. My husband and I pay a second mortgage every month called child care. So we understand the struggles so many Virginian families face.”