No black woman has ever been elected governor of any state.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, a 38-year-old attorney and member of the Virginia General Assembly, thinks she could be the first.
“The road to politics is a difficult one,” Carroll Foy said in a recent interview when asked about that statistic. “And it’s not easy to run for office when you don’t come from power and prestige and wealth.”
Carroll Foy is formally launching her bid for governor this week, speaking publicly for the first time about her aspirations for higher office and why she believes voters should put their trust in a second-term state delegate in what could be a crowded contest for the Democratic nomination in 2021.
A Petersburg native who now represents parts of Prince William and Stafford counties, Carroll Foy was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 as part of the initial blue wave that prefaced the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly last year.
Asked what she’d say to someone who might question whether she has enough experience for the top job in state government, Carroll Foy said she’s “been in Richmond long enough to know it’s not working” and to see that some who have been there longer have grown “out of touch” with the people they serve.
“I’ve been in Richmond long enough to know that special interests still have a strong hold,” she said.
Though she had intended to roll out her campaign back in March when the legislative session ended, those plans were put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic hit. But Carroll Foy said the crisis hasn’t altered the primary focus of her work: the plight of working families in a state where pro-business attitudes often win out.
“For too many Virginians the status quo isn’t working,” Carroll Foy said. “What COVID-19 has done has really exposed what was already beneath the surface.”
Though many workers have been classified as essential, she said, their paychecks signal something different.
“The economy is working very well for the very wealthy and it’s not working well for the person who’s working 40 hours a week and bringing home $14,000 a year,” Carroll Foy said. “We have to make a concerted effort to fix that.”
That means a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and paid family leave, she said.
The General Assembly, under full Democratic control this year for the first time in decades, passed a compromise bill to raise the $7.25 minimum wage to $12 over the next three years, falling short of the $15 many Democrats had pushed for. A paid sick leave bill failed late in the session, despite some lawmakers arguing the pandemic created a stark new example of why workers who feel sick should have the opportunity to stay home without losing money.
Carroll Foy also supports repealing the state’s longstanding right-to-work law, which limits the power of labor unions by prohibiting mandatory union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment. If workers stand to get better benefits and job security, she said, they should pay their “fair share” to those advocating on their behalf.
“It’s about people having equal negotiation power,” Carroll Foy said.
As someone who’s worked as a public defender and practices criminal defense law, Carroll Foy said she supports marijuana legalization and new curbs on cash bail.
“If you’re wealthy enough to buy yourself out of jail you can do that,” she said. “But if you’re too poor to pay you sit there for weeks and months if not years at a time. And that’s not justice.”
Carroll Foy’s interest in a gubernatorial run has been widely known in political circles, especially after her campaign filed initial election paperwork in early April before her launch announcement was ready.
Her potential competitors in the 2021 primary field include former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
Nearly everyone else in the field may have more name recognition and deeper relationships within the party than Carroll Foy. And progressive upstarts haven’t fared well in recent Democratic primaries, with Northam handily beating ex-congressman Tom Perriello in the 2017 gubernatorial race and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, one of the most pro-business Democrats in the legislature, narrowly defeated challenger Yasmine Taeb last year.
But it remains to be seen how Democratic voters will respond to the trio of scandals last year that left all three Executive Branch officeholders – Northam, Herring and Fairfax – with diminished standing. After high-profile controversies involving race and gender, some activists have called for a concerted effort to back women of color. If McClellan chooses to enter the race, the field would include at least two black women.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is the only major candidate to formally announce on the Republican side.
Democrats haven’t lost a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and the election of President Donald Trump helped fuel Democratic gains in the vote-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. How strongly those trends carry over into Virginia’s 2021 contests could depend partly on the outcome of the presidential race this year.
Gov. Ralph Northam cannot run for reelection due to the state’s term limits that prevent governors from serving consecutive four-year terms.
That law doesn’t prevent McAuliffe from making a comeback bid for his old job. He has openly signaled his interest in returning, telling The Washington Post there’s a “strong possibility” he’ll run again. His PAC reported three six-figure donations this month.
Asked about McAuliffe’s possible entry into the race crowding out other contenders, Carroll Foy avoided taking a direct shot at the former governor.
“I’m excited to share my vision for Virginians,” she said. “We need a leader who is right for this moment.”
As one of the first black women to graduate from the historically all-male Virginia Military Institute who went on to flip a red seat in the same year she gave birth to twin boys, she said she’s used to “creating trails.”
“This is something that has not been done,” Carroll Foy said. “But I know that everything is considered impossible until it’s done.”