A Democratic candidate for a north Georgia congressional seat will remain on the ballot this fall, even as he was urged to step down from the race and faces the prospect of being jailed through Election Day.
Steven Foster on Tuesday will go before a Whitfield County judge, who he’s hoping will free him on bond as he appeals his conviction for driving under the influence. But Foster’s campaign said he will continue his long-shot challenge to U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, in one of the reddest congressional districts east of the Mississippi regardless of what this week’s court date brings.
“He’s fighting for what he believes, and that is what makes a good congressman,” said Connie Hall-Scott, Foster’s fiancé and campaign spokeswoman.
Foster was sentenced to six months in jail last month. A DUI is a misdemeanor in Georgia until the fourth offense, which allows Foster to continue to run for office from behind bars. Regardless, party officials and even Foster’s hometown newspaper had urged him to drop out of the race.
"For our nation to flourish, elections need viable and legitimate candidates who can foster robust debate and discussion about the important issues of the day, not a candidate sitting in jail who is tainted by a criminal conviction," the Dalton Daily Citizen-News wrote in an Aug. 19 editorial.
Democratic Party officials would have been able to replace Foster on most ballots had he withdrawn from the race by last Friday. That didn’t happen.
State officials have distanced themselves from Foster, who was captured on police dash-cam video the night he was arrested challenging police officers to a fight and repeatedly insulting the county he was running to represent on the night. Party Chairman DuBose Porter said "it is our preference that he would have removed his name from the ballot."
“We know he has a number of challenges in his life and we hope he gets the help he needs,” Porter said.
Foster, 61, comes from a political family that has roots in the region going back generations. His uncle is the late R.L. “Shorty” Foster, who represented the Dalton area in the Legislature in a seat that was later occupied by his cousin Philip. Another cousin, Debby Peppers, lost a bid for a state Senate seat last year and is now working as Foster’s campaign treasurer, according to federal campaign filings.
Foster has been investigated by the U.S. Army on allegations he stole surplus military boats to deliver humanitarian aid to Hurricane Mitch victims in the late 1990s. Honduran police charged four of his charitable group's employees with cocaine trafficking.
He was stripped of his Georgia medical license in 2002 for failing to take a mental and physical examination, according to state records, and slapped with hundreds of thousands of dollars in local, state and federal tax liens. He now owns MedNow, an urgent care facility in Dalton, and the site of an "adults only, clothing-optional lifestyle retreat" in North Georgia.
Dan Lovingood, the 14th District Democratic Party chairman, said he’s known Foster his entire life and that he has “high moral standards.”
“He’d give you the closet of shirts, instead of just the shirt off his back,” he said of Foster. “He would help anybody.”
Lovingood said he’s volunteering as Foster’s “unofficial” campaign manager but that the local party is not helping Foster campaign and is focused instead on canvassing for other Democratic candidates.
“He’s committed to staying in it, so I will vote for him,” Lovingood said. “I would prefer that the situation would be different, obviously, but that’s how it is.”
Graves has publicly ignored Foster, who is the first Democrat to challenge him since 2012. He has cruised to reelection in the deeply conservative 14th District since he was elected in 2010.
Hall-Scott said campaign activities have continued even as Foster has remained behind bars. The campaign ordered yard signs last week and surrogates have been delivering Foster’s message in the district, she said.
In the meantime, the couple is preparing for Foster’s upcoming court date. They are asking the judge to let Foster serve out the rest of his sentence on probation, she said, and are also mulling a challenge to the county over his treatment by the officers. She suggested his jail sentence was politically motivated.
“His beliefs, his passion has not changed because he’s sitting in jail over a misdemeanor,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.