As a child, Adrienne Foster shared one bedroom with six other sisters in her family’s three-bedroom home on the south edge of downtown Kansas City, Kan.
Her five brothers claimed one of the other bedrooms, and her parents had the last one. Everyone shared the single bathroom.
Foster grew up poor.
So sometimes she still finds it hard to believe that as Roeland Park’s mayor for almost four years and as Gov. Sam Brownback’s adviser on the state’s Hispanic issues she is a rising political star.
“I asked my husband, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” Foster asked. “Here I am, Wyandotte County poor, Hispanic, a woman. But I’ve always been, what you see is what you get.”
And what you get with Adrienne Foster, 40, is:
A mayor who has bold — if criticized by some — ideas for steering her small city through a period of crisis as Wal-Mart, its largest revenue-generator, looks to leave for Mission.
A key Brownback adviser whose advocacy for Hispanics will be tested this year when Kansas lawmakers consider similar versions of the controversial Arizona law that some fear encourages racial profiling.
A fiscal conservative who has raised eyebrows for financial problems in her personal life that have played out in the public court system, problems she says are behind her.
A devout Catholic who had five sons while going to school and working to move her family into the middle class, described by supporters and critics alike as a hard-working, confident, articulate, resourceful force who exudes energy and excitement.
“Adrienne is awesome,” said Carlos Gomez, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City. “She makes you believe in her vision and she gets things done. She’s a take-charge person.”
An honor student and cheerleader in high school, the former Adrienne Vallejo was the first in her family of 14 to go to college. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees in public administration from Washburn University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and a paralegal certificate for backup.
Foster says her ability to overcome hurdles comes from her husband’s support, their five sons and especially her religion.
On the wall of her state office is a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe that has been blessed by Pope John Paul II and is on loan from the Mexican consulate.
Under the glass covering on her desk are her prayer cards. One is a prayer to St. Joseph for the Spirit of Work.
“That’s the best one, to work above all with purity of intention and with detachment from self,” she said. “I’m very religious. I have my prayers and my little prayer cards so I can get some inspiration every day.”
Foster, the baby of the family, blushes slightly as she talks about her first car, a 1972 green Duster with rusted-out floor boards. Rain, snow and sleet were a particular hazard. She was 16, the same age as the car her mother bought.
“The brakes hardly worked. So I lived on a hill, and you just had to stop right or you could miss your turn,” she said, laughter bubbling up, which for Foster, is often.
“We were poor, but I didn’t know I was poor because I was in a house full of love. Everything was normal.”
Her grandparents immigrated from Mexico. Her mother was a graduate of Bishop Ward High School, where Foster and her siblings went to school. Her father got a General Educational Development diploma after serving in the military and then went to work for the railroad.
In the tight-knit working class neighborhood of 10th Street and Central Avenue, no one ever seemed to leave.
“Even when my two sisters got married, they didn’t live too far,” she said. “They didn’t live past 21st Street. Coming over to 18th Street in Roeland Park, you didn’t really ever do that.”
Her parents, typical of many working class families then, didn’t consider college for their children until Foster approached them.
Her father had reservations.
“I think because he had seen movies like ‘Animal House’ on TV, and Washburn was far away,” she said, a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
Scholarships and grants for her grades, for her race and for her poverty status paid her way.
Foster did well in college until her fourth year when love came knocking.
Some of her sister’s in-laws, the Fosters, were having a Thanksgiving party and her sister and husband asked her to join them.
The family her sister had married into had an even bigger family, 13 siblings.
Stephen Foster, her sister’s brother-in-law, was hosting the party. It wasn’t love at first sight but the two became good friends.
“We were just friends for probably a year and then I thought I really like this guy, he’s a good guy,” she said.
Adrienne Foster was 21, about to enter her last semester of school, but Stephen Foster took a job in Wichita and so they got married.
And Foster dropped out of school.
“All my sisters and brothers wanted to kill me,” Foster said. “I was getting tired and love got in the way. I always believed in having a family.”
She had three children “right off the bat,” only 12 to 15 months apart.
“After they were 1, 2, and 3, I told my husband I’m going to have to finish my undergraduate degree, or I’ll have to start all over,” she said.
Three days a week, she drove to Topeka. Stay-at-home moms in the College Hill neighborhood in Wichita watched her kids. In return, at least twice a week she cooked the moms dinner.
After graduation, she and her family moved back to Kansas City where her husband had gotten a job at the Coca-Cola plant. Foster worked as a paralegal and had her fourth child.
Then she decided to get her master’s degree, and she also got pregnant again.
“I worked 40-plus hours a week, took classes at UMKC and finished in four semesters,” she said. “And I had a baby in between there.”
Over the years Foster and her husband have been hit with financial problems. Just a couple years ago, a bank started proceedings to foreclose on their home. But most of those financial issues are being taken care of, she said.
In 2009 she was working at Shawnee Mission Medical Center when she and several middle managers were laid off. Foster took a job with New York Life selling insurance. Pay was by commission.
Court records show that in 2011, Bank of America found her in default on her mortgage loan and started foreclosure proceedings, and Discover Bank said she owned more than $3,000.
Foster said she was a victim of the banks in the foreclosure case and her credit card problem.
In the foreclosure case, she said she had obtained a controversial balloon mortgage and when she tried to refinance, the bank delayed in filing it. They then filed a foreclosure.
“It was a mess, the worst nightmare,” Foster said.
But earlier last year, the situation was resolved and the case dismissed, and now Foster said she plans to join a class action lawsuit against the bank.
As for Discover, she said the $3,000 were overage fees that occurred because of a mistake by the bank.
Each month, Discover was withdrawing her month payment electronically from her checking account but the transaction would occur two days after the bill’s due date. The bank in turn charged her late fees. The debt grew to over three years added up to more than $3,000.
She didn’t notice until too late because “people are busy.”
But in December after going to court, Discover agreed that she didn’t owe anything.
“My credit is precious, and it has been through the wringer,” Foster said. “That pretty much ruined me with credit cards. And with five kids, if I don’t have the money, they are not going to get it.”
Politics was something Foster never had plans to tackle.
“That was about the last thought in my entire life,” she said.
But Foster got hooked when the city of Fairway announced plans to buy land at the Shawnee Indian Mission and turn it into a city hall and police station.
Her neighbor asked her to come to a meeting to save the mission. By then she was working for St. Luke’s Health System as a legal coordinator, negotiating with attorneys on bills and workers’ compensation.
At the meeting, people were discussing putting together a petition and needed 2,000 signatures. She told her neighbor she had some ideas, and he suggested she go to the lectern and speak.
“I was in my sweats, my hair pulled up, a Mexican girl with a baby on her hip,” she said. “I gave the baby to (my neighbor), and said, ‘Why don’t you guys’…They put me in charge.”
The group was successful in its campaign and even today, Foster remains a volunteer for the mission.
Suddenly people were asking her to run for office. She asked for advice from her husband, who now was a stay-at-home dad; Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who was one of her UMKC professors; and her priest.
In 2005, she won a seat on the Roeland Park council, which pays $500 a month. She was immediately appointed to lead the finance committee, and she asked Funkhouser for help on putting together her first budget.
Roeland Park, a bedroom community of 1.3 square miles and population 6,800, is a tidy town with low crime rates. When Foster spots trash on the street, she’ll ask one of her kids to get out of the car and pick it up.
Many of the homeowners are either first-time buyers or retired.
“We are known as the newly wed and the nearly dead,” Foster said.
As mayor, Foster encourages participation. She believes more people speak now at the council meetings; she sends thank you cards to everyone who speaks.
“I send thank you cards even if I don’t like what they say,” she said.
She juggles her full-time job in Brownback’s administration with her mayoral duties and raising five active boys. She spends most weekends like any soccer mom at ball games.
She has gotten used to phone calls at all times of the day and night. In Roeland Park, people will call the mayor even at midnight to complain about such worries as a barking dog, she said.
Foster became mayor in 2009, when the recession was in full swing. Property values plunged 20 to 25 percent.
Late in 2011, her biggest governing challenge became apparent.
Roeland Park learned that the city of Mission had poached Wal-Mart, its biggest revenue stream. Although the discount retailer is moving less than a mile down the road to town of Mission, it might as well be to China. Roeland Park says it will lose $700,000 a year in revenue.
In response the Roeland Park City Council increased its property tax rate by 11 percent in August. Still the tax rate remains lower than most in Johnson County, including Leawood, Shawnee, Merriam and others. In 2011, the city spent about $750 per city resident. The average for cities in Johnson County was $885.
The city then put a three-fourths of a cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. The increase was in addition to the city’s current 1.25 percent sales tax and would not go into effect until a state sales tax of .6 percent expires in July.
The tax would have made up for most of the loss in Wal-Mart revenue, but it was defeated in November by 30 votes.
Foster cast the tie-breaking vote to put the tax on the ballot.
“I voted yes because citizens have the right to vote on it,” Foster said after it lost. “But if residents say they don’t want a sales tax increase, we’re not going to do it.”
Now Foster is casting about for a new plan to replace the lost revenue and has come up with several proposals, a couple that have raised voters’ ire.
Her list includes eliminating some services such as the police force and building inspectors and paying the county to provide those services.
In addition, in an interview in December, she also said the city may no longer need a city administrator. Salary and benefits for Aaron Otto are about $123,000 annually.
“Aaron is a very nice guy,” Foster said. “But we really need to strap down for the next two or three years. There is not much you can cut. If we have any projects, we are paying cash for them.”
Proposing the city eliminate its police force has been especially controversial, hitting residents where they live. In Roeland Park, an officer will actually check on your home when you are on vacation.
Scott Gregory, a former councilman and a “devout Democrat,” said Foster and the council have his sympathy in trying to find solutions to a big problem but he was shocked when he read about Foster’s plans to eliminate services.
“Those are awful ideas,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out what is going on in Adrienne’s head.”
He said in the times that he has had to deal with the county he has found it to be “inefficient, slow to respond and sort of surly.”
Foster said there was a silver lining in the furor over her suggestion that the police force could be eliminated.
“It was an unintended consequence but now our residents understand — Roeland Park has a problem,” she said.
Foster believes her city and cities in northeast Johnson County could resolve some of their 2008 recession problems by sharing services.
“There is no reason to reinvent the wheel,” Foster said. “I’m not a brilliant person, but I sure can look and see what other cities did and see what we can do. I think the key to northeast Johnson County cities is definitely sharing services.”
Her strengths to collaborate and compromise will go a long way to help her in that quest, some say.
“She is open to suggestions.” said Sheri McNeil, a resident who acts as a council watchdog. “She listens to others and does not just have to have it go her way.”
As a staunch Republican, Foster belongs to a political party that sometimes is seen as off-putting to Mexican Americans because of the party’s stance on immigration issues and laws that some fear allow for racial profiling. Hispanics voted 3 to 1 in favor of President Barack Obama in November.
But Foster, a Catholic and a person of strong will and convictions, says more Hispanics should be Republican because they share the party’s values against abortion and for social and fiscal conservatism.
Only once has she voted as a Democrat, she said. That was in 2008 when she switched parties to vote in the Kansas Democratic caucus for Barack Obama.
She and many Republicans switched allegiances for a short time because they did not want to see Hillary Clinton win the presidential nomination, she said.
“I can’t stand Hillary,” she said.
In December 2010, Roeland Park got the first electric car fueling station in the state. The governor came to the ribbon cutting. After she introduced herself, Brownback told her he was trying to fill his Cabinet and wanted her to call a member of his staff.
“I didn’t believe him,” she said.
But the next day, her administration took a call from governor’s office.
“I thought maybe he left something. I said everybody go look in the conference room,” she said.
When she answered the phone, a Brownback staffer conducted an interview with her over the phone for a job and then said the governor wanted to interview her.
Later as Foster was driving to the interview in Topeka, she was so nervous, she called her priest.
“I’m just trying to make ends meet here and now they want me to run this other department,” said Foster, who had lost her job at a hospital after the downturn and was selling life insurance,.
“He said, ‘Listen, God gives you just enough that you can handle. If he didn’t think you could handle this, he wouldn’t be providing you this opportunity,’ ” the priest said.
She took the $90,000-a-year job as executive director of the Kansas Hispanic & American Latino Affairs Commission.
“She loves the state of Kansas and she is very proud of her Hispanic heritage,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s spokeswoman. “She is a great team member of the Brownback administration.”
The first week of work Foster called her husband and said, “I just can’t believe it. I’m walking across the Capitol right now to go to work. I’m very fortunate, and I’m very blessed.”
Her work will be cut out for her this month, some state legislators say.
Rep. Louis Ruiz, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said there are going to be some tough fights because many Republican moderates were no longer in office. In the last couple of elections, there has been a shift to a more conservative state, and the majority conservatives would be pushing hard for changes in immigration laws and the Kansas Dream Act, which allows undocumented students living in Kansas to pay in-state tuition.
“Adrienne will have a challenge this session,” Ruiz said. “She and her commission are going to have a tough road to hoe.”
And some legislators have trouble curtailing racist comments even publicly during heated discussions on the floor.
In 2011, Rep. Virgil Peck, a Tyro Republican, said in a debate over how best to control feral swine that illegal immigrants should be shot like wild hogs.
“Looks like to me, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem,” The Wichita Eagle reported.
Initially Peck was unapologetic but under pressure by his party he finally apologized.
Rep. Mario Goico, a Wichita Republican, publicly accepted that apology.
Goico said Foster will have to be able to defuse situations and at the same time defend and express Hispanic beliefs.
“I see Adrienne doing that,” he said.
But others see Foster as an apologist for the Republican Party who was never that concerned with Hispanic matters until her gubernatorial appointment.
Foster acknowledges the concerns Hispanics have over racism and wealth within the Republican party.
“It’s my role as a Hispanic Republican to educate our Hispanic community that we are not racist,” Foster said. “I’m not (made) of money, and I’m still not (made) of money. But I’m very rich with the gifts of my children and my husband.”
To reach Karen Dillon call 816-234-4430 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.