Discrimination case haunts Democrats in Arizona governor contest

Democratic concerns are growing that a years-old discrimination lawsuit is tarnishing the party's frontrunner in Arizona's gubernatorial race, jeopardizing the party’s chances of flipping the top executive post in a key swing state.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’s running for governor, was hit with controversy last month when a jury found for the second time that Talonya Adams, a Black woman, was discriminated against when she worked for state Senate Democrats and ultimately fired in retaliation after raising concerns about pay disparity. Hobbs was the party’s minority leader in the chamber and participated in Adams’s firing in 2015.

Hobbs, who is leading in gubernatorial primary polls, has apologized for her role in the firing. But Democratic worries remain that the issue risks alienating key parts of the Democratic base and hindering her in a general election for one of the nation’s most competitive governorships.

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“It's definitely a punch to the gut that she received, and it'll certainly have an impact,” said state Sen. Martín Quezada (D), who is running for state treasurer and supporting Hobbs's campaign. “I'm confident she still will win the primary. But how much of an impact this will be in the general, it's hard to tell at this point.”

Adams worked as a legislative policy adviser for state Senate Democrats when she alleged that she was paid $30,000 less than her white male colleagues and that she was the only person in her position to not get a pay raise. Adams claimed in court filings that she was fired in 2015 after asking about the issue.

A federal jury ruled in 2019 that Adams should receive $1 million, but a new trial was held after a push by state lawyers. The jury in the second trial recommended in November that Adams get $2.75 million.

While the suit was filed against the state Senate, Hobbs testified that she participated in the discussion over whether to dismiss Adams, remarks that could open her up to attacks from Republicans and other Democrats.

“What has happened with some of the recent mishandling of the Talonya Adams issue is that it has essentially taken a sleepy primary and shows there's a little blood in the water,” said Mike Noble, the chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, a nonpartisan market research firm based in Phoenix. “It has emboldened her opponents to now kind of be more aggressive with her.”

“If Hobbs becomes the nominee, I think it'd be cause for concern for the Democrats because the Republicans would make hay out of this issue,” he added. “And they will have, when it comes to the general election, unlike possibly the primary, significant resources to make an issue of it.”

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Hobbs, whose profile skyrocketed over her opposition to the GOP-led election audit in Arizona, is running in the primary against former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman and former Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez, who are already hinting they’ll bring up the decision when the primary kicks into high gear.

“For her specifically in the governor's race, it calls out the degree of how she's treated people and how that has been put on display and in evidence in a court of law and she's been found to be responsible for discrimination and retaliation,” Lopez told The Hill. “So absolutely, it's going to be detrimental to her as a candidate, her as a Democratic candidate, especially, when we need diverse populations to come out and be excited about voting.”

“Having to address that for the next eight months is not a recipe for winning,” he added.

The issue has already made waves among core parts of the Democratic base.

The Maricopa Democratic Party Black Engagement Committee released a blistering statement in November saying it is “exceptionally disappointed this case occurred at all.”

“We demand and require better of Katie Hobbs and all of our Democratic candidates,” the committee added in its statement, raising concerns over grassroots enthusiasm next year if Hobbs is the nominee.

Hobbs has sought to do damage control, with uneven results.

Her initial response in November was criticized after she said she wished “I had been a better ally” but insisted that “this decision on my part was not based on gender or race.” She ultimately backtracked in a video released this month, saying, “I understand that my response fell short of taking real accountability.”

“Please allow me to say this clearly and unequivocally: I apologize to Ms. Adams,” she added.

Hobbs’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some Democrats say the second video was a positive step in making amends but would likely not fully erase the decision’s fallout.

“It definitely has been more than a hiccup for her. I think with her statement that she released last week, I think she got back on her footing,” said Bill Scheel, who managed Arizona Democrat Fred DuVal’s 2014 gubernatorial bid. “To the extent there was an opening for some of those other candidates, I think that has closed a little bit.”

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“I think there were concerns,” he added, “and sure, among some people, there continue to be concerns.”

Hobbs’s defenders say the second apology was a sufficient mea culpa and that the Adams decision will not play a factor in 11 months.

“One thing about voters that we all know, they have very short memories, and we have a very long time,” said Pima County Democratic Party Chair Bonnie Heidler, who added Hobbs is “trying to address it as best she can.”

Polling conducted before the November decision showed Hobbs with a massive lead in the primary. However, with high numbers of undecided voters and an expected dogfight in the general, neither party can afford unforced errors.

“In this current atmosphere right now, Democrats have to be running almost near perfection because even small missteps could make the difference between winning and losing,” Noble said. “Being tightened up and not shooting yourself in the foot is going to be incredibly important.”

The pressure for Democrats to perform to that standard is high.

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The race to replace term-limited Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyDemocrats torn over pushing stolen-election narrative Arizona sues Biden administration over threat to claw back COVID-19 funds Some in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump MORE (R) is a top flip opportunity on the gubernatorial side for Democrats. Heightening its importance, maps still being drawn this redistricting period are anticipated to make flipping the state House and Senate overwhelmingly difficult — making the governor’s mansion Democrats’ best shot at having a hand on the legislative wheel come 2023.

“For Democrats across the state of Arizona to have any type of meaningful input on what type of policies get adopted in the state for the next six to eight years, and possibly the next decade, we're going to need to win the governor's race,” Quezada said. “That's going to bring some level of parity to governance in our state.”

While the governorship is one of Democrats’ main priorities, the Adams decision is also anticipated to ripple down the ballot.

Quezada said it’s an issue he’s been asked about in his own statewide race and that Democrats running for other offices should figure out a response now.

“The side effects of this whole situation are going to bounce all the way down the ballot, whether it's other statewide candidates, even down to legislative and lower-level candidates as well,” he said. “Every candidate is going to have to find a way to acknowledge that this happened and find a way to address it in a way that, frankly, is better than the way Sec. Hobbs did.”