Jennifer Carroll Foy, a 36-year-old public defender from Woodbridge, Virginia, beat Republican Mike Makee for the 2nd District seat by a 26 percent margin last week. Hers was one of a small avalanche of Democratic wins—and in particular, women and minority wins—that marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election.
Foy’s candidacy, rooted in a lifetime of hard work and civic responsibility, underscores the opening we’re seeing now for a new political landscape filled with the kinds of startlingly impressive women who have always existed but have not been put in charge. Foy found out that she was pregnant with twins just a few weeks after announcing her candidacy. After a high-risk pregnancy, she gave birth to boys Alex and Xander at only 23 weeks; she spent her days campaigning and her nights in a neonatal intensive care unit. They’ll be coming home soon. Foy, who was also one of the first women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, supported Bernie Sanders in the Virginia primary last year and Hillary Clinton in the general election. She told me that her ideal Democratic party “looks like their voters.”
“We are a diverse country and state and we will continue to be, and it’s about time that everyone starts expecting that this is who we are,” she said.
We talked by phone a few days after the election. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for space and clarity.
JEZEBEL: What have the past few days been like? Were you expecting Tuesday’s results?
JENNIFER CARROLL FOY: Yeah, so we’ve always been running to win, so we’ve always been pretty confident that if we continued to execute our game plan that hopefully we’d be successful. For our race, we didn’t think we were going to win by such a large margin. So yeah, it was a huge surprise, we were overwhelmed and happy.
I kind of describe it as drinking from a fire hose. There’s so much happening all at once. Because our race has received so much national attention, because a lot of people saw it as a referendum on Trump and Trump-style politics, people want to talk to all of us to get our perspective on the race. But this is where our real work begins—we’ve had a lot of interests groups reach out, a lot of policy groups reach out, and now we have to prepare ourselves for actual office in the next couple week.
I have a perspective question as well, unfortunately! You were part of a wave on Tuesday that made a lot of people in this country feel good for the first time in a year, and hopeful. Do you think the energy that got the Democrats to this place is sustainable? What are some of the challenges you see in terms of voter engagement going into 2018 and 2020?
We saw historic numbers of women come out to vote, the Latino community showed up, and Muslims came out like I’ve never seen before. I think that’s because we all want a message to be received that the politics of hatred and bigotry and misogyny and xenophobia is rejected here in Virginia, so I think that was great, and one of the biggest takeaways. Also, specifically for women, we showed up.
We have a president who has made admission to sexual assault, we have anti-women legislation coming out of the General Assembly here in Virginia, and this is how women respond. We become candidates to take over your seat, to take your job, and we show up to support other women to make sure that our interests our protected. And I think that this momentum will definitely carry over into 2018, because our work isn’t done yet.
So many women ran and are running, but of course not every woman who was horrified and angered by the 2016 election ran for office. What made that a possibility for you? What made that feasible?
I just knew that I felt so passionate about it. I know that I’m dedicating my life to public service, and I’m a good advocate, and I wanted to channel my energy into something positive. It wasn’t enough just to log on Facebook or to scream at Fox News—I wanted to get involved. So I already, you know, had volunteered and contributed my time and money to Barack Obama’s campaign, Hillary, and Bernie, and I said, well, I can actually campaign for myself and my community, and just help be the change that I want to see here.
Did you have any difficult moments on the campaign trail, either as a woman, as a person of color, as a new mom, or just as a first-time candidate?
Yeah, one of the biggest challenges was being pregnant during the campaign. [It’s] difficult being a first time candidate and also a woman candidate because as a woman, [you face] a whole different set of issues than a male counterpart. As women, we carry a major load of household responsibilities, and childcare, and so trying to juggle being a public defender in my professional life on top of continuing to spend time with my husband and take care of everything that needed to be done, and also a candidate, and now also focusing on bringing life into the world—it was tremendously difficult. Not only that, but it wasn’t an easy pregnancy, having [twins]. So, you know, where other people just have to go canvass, I have to go canvass with morning sickness. Or, on top of the meetings with Democratic committees and different functions, I also had a number of doctor’s visits and ultrasounds and blood work. So it just added multiple layers to something that’s already challenging, when you factor in the fact that you’re a woman, and the fact that you’re pregnant.
That sounds nearly impossible; it’s incredible that you pulled it off. I also wanted to talk about your time as a public defender, and how that helped to shape your priorities. How did that impact the issues you wanted to focus on during the campaign?
Absolutely. As a public defender, my profession lent itself very well to one of my number one platform issues, which is criminal justice reform. So in the General Assembly there are a number of prosecutors, and I would be the first public defender. So what I bring to the table is a different perspective, because I know what it means to represent indigent clients—that’s people over 100% below the poverty line.
I also know what it means to represent people with substance abuse issues, and how that contributes to perpetual crimes they may have committed, or clients with mental illness, and better ways to serve them, because sometimes all they need is referrals to mental health services and not so much incarceration. And then also children; in Virginia we’re number one in the country for school-to-prison pipeline, and I see that firsthand every day defending minors and juveniles in court, sometimes for low-level disobedient or disorderly offenses. So I do bring that perspective and voice to criminal justice reform, and I can speak intelligently about a lot of the laws and changes that I believe we need to make. Here in Virginia we have a lot of archaic and draconian laws on the books that we need to change in order to enter the 21st century and catch up with the rest of society.
What are some of the things that you’ve learned over the course of running for office that you’d want other first-time woman candidates to know?
I want first-time candidates to know that it’s important [to build] a great team. So put wonderful people around you who share your vision and your passion because you cannot do it alone. Also, make sure your friends and family are on board, because the sacrifices that you’ll make personally and professionally are great. And lastly, tune out all white noise. Once you make the decision to run, hold true to yourself, know what your issues are, and keep your head down and run your race. I think that was some of the best advice that I was given, because at the end of the day, when we run, we win, so it’s just about putting ourselves out there and we can get it done.
In the aftermath of what happened in Charlottesville, was that something that came up on the campaign trail that you had to grapple with?
Yeah, that was a conversation that I had at a lot of doors where people in my district wanted to talk about how disappointed they were in what happened, and in leadership’s response to what happened, also. I definitely agree with Gov. Terry McCauliffe when he said that bigotry, hatred and racism are not welcome in Virginia and a lot of the people that were there came out of state [bringing] this type of rhetoric and violence, and we’re not gonna tolerate it. So yeah, I think that’s something that it’s important to have conversations that we haven’t had recently, and really explore how we can do better and unify ourselves as a country no matter who tries to divide us.
There’s been a lot of talk and controversy throughout the year but also particularly lately about what the Democratic party should look like going into 2018 and 2020. What kinds of candidates the party should be running, what kinds of issues ought to constitute a “litmus test,” for example—what does your ideal Democratic party look like?
My ideal Democratic party looks like their members, looks like their voters. I think one of the greatest takeaways from this election is that there was a diverse and dynamic slate of candidates, and our general assembly will now look like the community they represent. And ideally that’s what you want—when you have people coming from diverse socioeconomic, religious, racial, ethnic backgrounds, you have more fruitful conversations, more people’s interests will be represented.
We are a diverse country and state and we will continue to be, and it’s about time that everyone starts expecting that this is who we are as a state and as a nation. And I think that’s a Democratic message—about diversity and inclusion, and everyone being given the opportunity and the ability to live the American dream, and protecting everyone’s constitutional rights and civil liberties, and how can we help the person sitting next to us, because if that person succeeds we all succeed. I mean, that is the message, that is the core of American values and the Democratic party, and I think that’s something that’s being received right now by not only some Democrats who may not have necessarily been paying attention, but also by independents and even some leaning Republicans, which is exciting.
What are your top priorities when you get into the House? What are some of the things you think you can actually get done?
Top priority for all Democrats right now—I think that this election reflected that most Virginians want Medicaid expansion. That’s number one on our list. Number two for me, on a local level, in our district transportation is huge. The Washington Post named us one of the most congested traffic areas [in the country]. That is something that I definitely want to address as a delegate.
Another will be increasing teacher’s salaries. In Virginia, we pay our teachers $7,500 less than the national average, and we have a teacher shortage here because teachers are leaving the profession, because they’re not paid what they’re worth. But I have other issues that I definitely want to address, very local to my district, such as getting Dominion Energy to responsibly close the coal ash pond in my community just a few miles from my house, to protect the environment. And as far as my criminal justice platform, increase the grand larceny threshold here in Virginia, where it’s the lowest in the nation at only $200.
I know it’s pretty early to be asking this question, but do you have any ambitions for seeking higher office at some point?
I haven’t given it any thought! Right now I’m just excited to represent the people in the 2nd District down in the House of Delegates.
What would you say to a woman who’s on the fence about running for office?
If you want to move women forward and not allow politicians to push us back with their regressive politics and policies, if you want to protect your children, your family, then be a candidate. Get up and run. Is it easy? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely.