Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster greets me on the floor of the chamber where he is a freshman legislator. Along with his campaign manager, Colton Robinson, he shows me to a room off to the side of the chamber.
"Freshmen don't get offices," says the young lawmaker, whom voters first elected to the statehouse in 2015.
Back home in DeSoto County, where he runs Cedar Hill Farm, an agritourism business, Foster is known for his nice-guy image. On his campaign materials, he touts himself as a "Man of Faith," a "Conservative Outsider" and a "Farmer." But online, he has earned a reputation for inflammatory tweets and ultra-conservative stances. Now, he is running for governor in the Republican primary, running against current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican from Florence, Miss., among others.
It was early morning on Jan. 30, 2018, when we sat down to go beyond the tweets and discuss his ideas on the issues that could make or break his attempt at a shock primary victory against Reeves.
Give me a general idea of why you decided to run.
I decided to run because I have a passion for trying to help our state, and I see a vision of how we can fix all our problems. I did not want to take the typical one step up the political ladder over a 16-, 20-year period because I didn't want to lose the passion I have now.
I do believe that no matter how strong your convictions are, how passionate you are, if you get into the political system that long, it will grind you down. It will change you and drain you of a lot of that passion because it's a very grueling process.
Typically in the system, we almost always know who's going to be governor and lieutenant governor next. How do you break through that?
I think people are ready for the change. I sense that when I'm going all over the state and people reach out to me. We're just going to have to break (that cycle) with somebody different—somebody who is not next in line in the pecking order.
You're a farmer. In response to President Trump's tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, China put tariffs on U.S. goods like soybeans, one of Mississippi's top crops. Soybean farmers here have seen prices and demand for exports drop. What do you think of the tariffs, and how do you counteract those negative impacts?
I have to support our president and what's he trying to accomplish. The Chinese have been taking advantage of us and other countries for a long time on trade deals, and it has been bleeding our country of all of our manufacturing, of a lot of our industry. He is attempting to force them to the table to renegotiate those deals. It has to be done, because if not, our entire country continues to decline economically otherwise, and it's a tough situation to be in. It's not easy.
Do you support the administration's bailouts for farmers caught in the crosshairs of the trade war?
We're going to have to take care of our farmers. We have to have food. We have to have agriculture. It's one of the biggest parts of our entire economy in this state and in our nation. ... And we're in a very good at what we do. We're going to have to make sure that they're taken care of until we're able to get past this.
How has your family-farm business influenced your ideas for the state?
So with my business, it's all specialty crops. It's not a big-row crop farm. It's mostly hand-labor crops that require a lot of attention, a lot of hand labor, and I've worked with a lot of different people of a lot of different backgrounds over the years. It's an entertainment agritourism operation. So we grow crops that draw people to our farm to come pick their own crops, and bring their families and kids out for entertainment and school field trips and company picnics and weddings and family reunions. So it's a very unique business.
I grew that business and developed that business model during a very tough time for the country with the recession hitting right there in that time. I firsthand got to feel the effects of how government, at a period when government had reached the highest pinnacle of regulation and taxation, how it really held me back from growing my business. ... We would have grown that business even faster had it not been for all of the barriers put in place by government.
I think that puts me in a different category than the people I'm running against because they haven't lived in that world. They haven't worked under those rules and regulations. They have been in government for a long period of time.
You and Sen. Chris McDaniel have had some back-and-forth recently because he disagrees with your support of "Medicaid reform." But you both take the conservative mantle in a way most establishment politicians don't. You both put yourselves up against the good-ole-boy system. What differentiates your approach from McDaniel?
I try not to ever make politics personal. And I don't attack my party whenever I can avoid it. I try to just attack the policy. I don't think it helps us get anywhere when you start attacking people, and that's why I called out a certain individual who was trying to make it personal and trying to attack me personally rather than attacking policy. And I think that's what's wrong with politics today is that people get too much in the weeds on personal attacks because they don't have a position that they can stand on.
We have to have conversations about educational reform, and we need to have a conversation about tax-policy reform if you want to make our state better. We've got to make some big changes.
I've seen ads where you claim you don't support Medicaid expansion, but do support "reform." But what you describe as "reform" on your website sounds a lot like expansion, which involves accepting federal funds to expand access to Medicaid to about 300,000 Mississippians who make too much for traditional Medicaid, but not enough for Affordable Care Act subsidies. What's the difference?
You can use the word expansion, or you can use the word reform. I use the word reform because there's a big difference to me between reforming Medicaid and expanding it and just bringing more people onto the government payroll for health care. I think that's bad policy. I think it encourages dependency. It discourages people from wanting to take the step into society of working and helping pitch in for what they get back. ... I want to incentivize people to continue to work, to have skin in the game, to help pay in something to help cover, so the State doesn't have to drain our budget to help cover their insurance.
But we do need to draw down those federal dollars to help. ... All the people who work in Mississippi are paying federal taxes—and our dollars are being redistributed around for health care in other states, and we're not getting the benefit here. The people contributing should be receiving what they're helping pay for everybody else to use.
We're sticking our head in the sand because we don't like the policy of Obamacare. I think it's bad policy. The ACA is bad policy that had a lot of flaws, but it is the law of the land, and Mississippi is going to have to do what's in our best interest until that law is changed in Washington. We would be a lot better off if Washington block-granted money back to the states in education and health care so we can do what we think is best for our state because every state is not the same. What works for us doesn't necessarily work for New York or Texas or Tennessee.
Talk more about that.
We have to do what is in our best interest, but we also have to work within what the law allows us to do, and if we can get innovative waivers that are that are different, that are unique—other states have done something similar, like Indiana and Arkansas—that allow leniency and allow us to do a program that encourages people to keep working and to move up in society.
What the rest of the country needs to look at, with all of our all of our policies on health care and entitlement programs, is we shouldn't have this threshold line that says, "If you make below this number, then you get all of this assistance. And if you make one dollar over it, you don't get anything." What that creates is people having this dependency. They just stay under that threshold. They realize that if they go get a job, or if they work extra hours, or if they pick up a second job and try to better their lives, it's going to hit them so hard when they lose all of that safety net that they've got. And so they don't in a lot of cases.
What we need to do is create a system where they are incentivized to continue to work, and to work harder, and to pick up extra hours and earn more income. Or they can help pitch in as they move up that ladder—a sliding scale per se where you're able to pitch in more as you're able to pitch in more or it encourages you to move out of poverty. It's just common sense. And what we should do is make it harder to stay in this category. If you can work, we should say, "go get a job, and we will help you." And that will work. It does work.
Our system now is so messed up, and Mississippi hasn't made any reforms at all. We've encouraged people to stay in poverty rather than encourage them to go get a job and help. So that's what I want to do. I want to reform Medicaid to help the people that want to help themselves and encourage the people that are trying to help themselves to do that. And they will if we give them an opportunity.
In Mississippi, only one health insurer offers coverage that includes ACA subsidies. Gov. Bryant declined to set up an ACA-compliant state-level health-insurance exchange. Would that be something you would consider, and would you look at ways to help bring more insurers in?
I would look at all options. We have to not be hardheaded and say we're not going to talk about it. We have to look into it. And I think that, as governor, it would be my responsibility to look at all options, and then to try to get the Legislature together on solutions. We would have a heavy civilized rational conversation about it, and about what's in the best interest of working-class Mississippians—because they are the ones who are getting hurt right now.
It's not the people that don't work; they get traditional Medicaid. It's not the people that are wealthy; they have insurance. It's not the people that work for the state government; they have state insurance. It's all the working-class people in our state. There are those who work privately for themselves, or for small companies that don't have any corporate insurance that are being hurt. We've got to do something for them.
In recent years, Mississippi has cut hundreds of billions in corporate taxes, including the corporate-franchise tax. At the same time, we've struggled to fund repairs for our roads and bridges. Do you support cutting taxes on corporations further?
I'm 100 percent favor of cutting the franchise tax. I helped push that through the House. The franchise tax is a very regressive tax on companies. Similarly, you can see we had a warehousing inventory tax on the books some years ago, and right before I came into the Legislature, they cut that tax.
In DeSoto County, which is right on the Tennessee line with Memphis, we had very few to no warehouses. That changed as soon as they cut that warehousing tax, and they're now building multi-million-square-foot warehouses all over the state line up there. Mississippi is bringing thousands of good jobs, and they're paying tremendous amounts of property tax into the local economy to support DeSoto County Schools. They are buying houses in DeSoto. There are spin-off businesses and industries that are contributing—restaurants and eateries where people go to lunch while they're working. All of that spin-off, economically, is a huge boom, and that would never happen had we not done away with that regressive tax.
My plan is to completely reform all of our tax policies in our state. We've got to get away from regressive taxes that attack businesses and personal income before people decide how they want to spend their money. It's bad economics to take somebody's money before they decide how they're going to spend it. We've got to look at getting to more excise-sales taxes. Then they get to decide how they want to spend their money. They get to make a conscious decision: "Do I want to go out dinner? Do I want to go to the grocery store to buy my groceries? Do I want to buy this size TV?" Then they get to decide and get taxed as they spend, and you have everybody contributing—everybody passing through our state, everyone helping pitch in to help take care of our roads to help take care of our bridges and to help contribute to the basic cost of maintaining our state government.
Sales taxes are regressive taxes, though. Wouldn't they disproportionately hurt the poor because they would be paying more for basic necessities like groceries?
Well, you could make that argument. However, when the economy starts to do better—which I know it will because economically it will unleash our economy on a different level—then the poor will be taken care of. You look at Texas, you look at Tennessee. The poor are being taken care of better in those states because they have a better and stronger economy. And so it's a chicken-and-egg issue. You can argue that it will affect them more because they'll have to pay a little bit higher sales tax, but they're also getting their money to buy their groceries from the government anyway, so it's kind of a moot argument to me to say that it's going to hurt them when we're taking care of them anymore.
If we want to be able to take care of the people that are in need, we have to have a strong economy in order to afford to take care of them. And so, if we want to make everybody's lives better, we have to get a tax system that makes the economy grow, because when you do that then everybody benefits.
Tennessee passed a law making two years of community college free for adults who graduated from its high schools, for the purpose of growing a more educated, ready workforce. What do you think of that idea?
I don't agree with that. What we need to be doing is putting vo-tech and career tech in high schools where we're already spending a tremendous amount of money. Kids need to have options while they're in high school—while they're fully mature enough to learn skills. They may not know what they want to do for a living, yet, but that's when they need to be exploring options. I mean going to computer classes and learning to program, going to mechanic classes and welding, plumbing, electrical—whatever it is. They need to be learning different trades and skills so that when they figure out what they want to do, hopefully by the time they graduate, they will have had enough course credits that they can go get a job when they graduate.
And if they want to go on and further their career with more training at junior college, or if they want to go on to a professional career, if that's the path that they want to be on, they can take Calculus II, Chemistry II, Biology II and all those advanced classes that really make zero sense to make the average student take. They're never going to use those courses. It doesn't make sense for everybody.
In the past, you have expressed discomfort with the idea of school vouchers. Explain why.
So here (are) the issues that I see there. We try to pass policy a lot of times in Jackson, and that's a one-size-fits-all policy. We say we're going to blanket this policy across the state, and your local school districts are going to have to do it whether they want to do it or not, and it's going to affect your local community whether you want it or not. And to me, I think that's bad policy.
No matter whether you believe it's good or whether you believe it's bad, we should not dictate policy down to the local level because it can have unintended consequences that ripple and harm communities that have invested a tremendous amount of local support into their local school districts. They have a strong network of parent involvement. They have a strong community built around the school systems. To go in and break those up with an experiment to me is just not smart.
What we ought to allow people to do in communities where they have a struggling school district where they don't have local support or they don't have good parent involvement is to give them options and the leniency to do what they want to do in their community. Maybe they want to have charter schools. Maybe they don't want to have a voucher program that sends kids to private schools in their community. That's fine. I want them to have the freedom and liberty to do whatever they want to do with their local school system and not have Jackson tell them what they have to do.
Careers in information technology and computer programming are growing rapidly, and leaders across the country are pushing for computer coding skills to be a part of school curriculums. What is your view?
We've got to instill skills like that with career-tech and vo-tech. I'm for putting it even in earlier stages before high school. It's a necessity to transforming education. We've got this whole system backwards of what it ought to be. We ought not be sending everybody on a path to a four-year college because there's not but a small number of jobs out there that require a four-year professional degree.
They ought to have the resources put in place to give kids these options to learn these skills so that we can break that cycle of poverty. Because if a kid sees that all they have to do is complete these courses in his classes and they can get out and make 30, 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars starting out with a good career, then they can see prospects to move up.
You talk about how we put drug addicts in jail instead of treating them. What are your plans for tackling our mental-health care crisis?
We have got to figure out a way to get our mental-health facilities funded so they can take in these patients. The place for them is not in jail. It's bankrupting our local jails and local supervisors trying to afford to take care of them. They're not equipped to handle people with mental-health issues. Their job is to house criminals and people that we are scared of in society—not people (like) that. Those people need to be in mental-health facilities. And we need to figure out a way to get them the resources they need so we can get these people out of the jails.
The Jackson Free Press has reported often on officer-involved shootings and the lack of transparency from city government. Would you do anything as governor to improve law-enforcement training to help avoid these incidents?
I'm not familiar with there being an issue with officer-involved shootings. Those officers are out there, putting their lives on the line, and I'm not going to try and judge their decisions. They have to make a split-second decision. It could be me dead or them, and until I think somebody has put themselves in that position to understand the reality, that is a reality they face every day when they're on the job. People out there in those streets would kill them if they had that opportunity. They don't want to go back to prison or jail, and they're going to pull a gun out and shoot back, and these cops have to live with that, and they have to work in a very dangerous, in a very stressful situation. And I just don't believe that they're out there trying to shoot people that don't need to. I mean, they're only shooting at people that are trying to kill them or they feel may kill them. And it's a life-or-death situation.
You are not aware of any circumstance where a police officer has unjustly killed someone?
I'm not aware of any now. I'm not saying this never happened. If it has, then I would want our district attorney and people to investigate that case, and hold anyone accountable that's abused their power or done something.
People have got to learn that they've got to respect these officers and give them the attention that they deserve when they're asking them questions and not be so combative towards them. If you're breaking the law, you're going to have to answer for it. And if you're not, then you have nothing to hide, and you shouldn't have a problem with just answering the questions. That's just the way I look at it.
You co-authored the Gestational Age Act, which bans abortions after 14 weeks, but a federal court struck it down last year. Mississippi's only abortion clinic stops performing abortions after 15 weeks. Why pass an anti-abortion law when it only makes a week's difference?
I think it's the principle of the issue that unborn life is not negotiable. We've got to push it further and further. It is a very sad situation in society when it's not about the mother's health. That's a separate issue if her life is at risk. But when somebody wants to choose to end a life for convenience, I think that's just a very sad thing. It's an evil to me that our society is going to have to answer for, and we should do everything we can to protect those unborn children. They have done nothing wrong. It's sad that we try to turn in an argument about a woman's choice for her body.
You know, if you decide, "I don't want to have to have a financial burden of taking care of a child," what's the difference between one that's six weeks and one that's six months or six years? There isn't a difference.
By that same token, what's the difference between 14 and 15 weeks?
Every time we can push it farther and farther, I'm for it.
Late-term abortions have been a big topic lately because of a law New York passed. Women who have late-term abortions usually do it out of medical necessity, either out of concern for their own life or due to fetal deformities. In some cases, the deformities are such that the fetus will die soon after birth, and these abortions are done to spare them from suffering in the meantime. Would you ban such procedures?
Well, there are going to be some extremely rare cases where the baby is not a viable baby. It's not going to live outside the womb. But the thing about it is, if that baby is born and doesn't survive, then that's natural. That way of that baby passing to me is a more humane way than going in and us killing it. You don't take somebody who is old and dying because they're old and then just go and kill that person because they're old and they have pains.
Anyway, life should not be ended early just because somebody else chooses it for you. I don't think we should make those decisions.
In one of your tweets, you said being discriminated against is part of the price we pay to live in a free society. What did you mean by that?
Well, I actually feel discriminated against a lot as a conservative. I feel discriminated against a lot as a Christian in our society today, and attacked a lot for my beliefs. But I think people have the right to free speech. I don't want to quell somebody's free speech because I don't believe in what I believe.
We have groups of people out there trying to not even allow the other side to have a say. When you own a business, and you run a business, somebody does not have a right to come in and demand you serve them. There is a two-way street there. They have to show you respect when they come into your business and you have to show—you should show—them respect. If you don't, as a business owner, show people the respect they deserve, the free market takes care of it, because people will not want to do business with somebody who does not show people respect. And if you discriminate against somebody because of their skin color or something of that nature, that is wrong, and everybody would agree that that is wrong.
That's not what I was talking about in that tweet. That was back during the whole House Bill 1523 time period. There is an attack upon Christians and people in this nation that have a belief that they should not be a part of celebrating something that they think is a sinful act, and there's a difference between selling somebody a wedding cake from your bakery, and then asking you to make a wedding cake personalized for a ceremony that you believe you don't want to be a part of for religious reasons.
A gay couple in Texas recently said they were searching for a wedding venue, but were turned down by multiple venues after they showed up for appointments and the owners realized they were a gay couple. If businesses are going to be allowed to refuse to serve LGBT people, shouldn't they have to post a "No Gays" public notice?
They could have simply called and just been upfront with them about (being a gay couple). Just call when you know it's something out of the ordinary and be upfront with the person, and then go do business with the people you want to do business with.
Would you say that to an interracial couple?
I think that's completely different situation. I just do, to me. It is not an issue, I think. I think race is completely different than getting somebody involved in a religious ceremony that goes against their core beliefs.
There are people who say they oppose interracial marriages on the basis of religious beliefs, though. Historically, Christians in the South believed God "made the races separate."
Honestly, I just don't see that in my views as a Christian. I haven't gotten that from the Bible.
You get a lot of criticism for your inflammatory tweets, such as one where you wrote that "anyone who votes Dem in 18 is either ignorant or evil" because "there is no excuse for supporting killing babies or open borders." Why do you do it?
It's not like they don't ask for it. They attack me, and they attack things that I believe in, and yeah, I give it back a little bit sometimes, and that's uncommon for most politicians. A lot of times, politicians ignore it completely and don't fight back. I can talk policy with anybody, and I'm friends with people that are liberal, conservative and everything in between. I'm just a nice guy and get along with people. But you know, if they don't want to step in the ring, don't step in the ring.
Would you be a governor who tweets like Trump?
I'm a little more reserved than Trump, I'll say. A lot of times things are taken out of context. I know one of the most common ones I'm asked about is one that people misconstrue as me saying Democrats are evil and ignorant. If you look at the rest of the tweet, I'm talking about abortion and open-border policies.
Tweets are hard to get into context. They're short. But I'm not saying that Democrats are all evil. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that the policies of abortion are evil, and the policies of open borders are ignorant, and to support those policies is voting Democrat(ic). And that's what we were talking about at the time. You have to read more into it. A lot of people don't want to do that. They like to just take excerpts and hammer them. Which is fair. It's politics. But it's not the truth.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.