Black leaders blast Katie Hobbs after verdict in Arizona Senate discrimination case

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is running for governor, speaks at a press conference on Nov. 4, 2021.

Six prominent Black leaders are urging Arizonans to "reconsider" supporting Katie Hobbs' campaign for governor, saying they are deeply concerned about Hobbs' role in firing a Senate employee who has now twice won a discrimination case over the termination.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure Katie Hobbs is not successful,” said Cloves Campbell, a former state representative and publisher of the Arizona Informant, the only African American-owned weekly newspaper in the state.

Hobbs has been considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor, thanks to her role as Secretary of State and a national profile built by defending the 2020 election in Arizona.

But the criticism from Black community leaders deals a blow to her campaign ahead of the August 2022 primary election. Her Democratic opponents, former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman of Paradise Valley and former Obama administration official Marco Lopez, have already seized on the discrimination case to question Hobbs' ability to lead the state as governor.

The political and religious leaders issued a statement Friday just two days after a federal jury awarded Senate Democratic aide Talonya Adams, a Black woman, $2.75 million in damages.

The jury found Adams, who represented herself at trial, was discriminated against on the job and retaliated against when she was fired in 2015. At the time, Hobbs was the Democratic leader in the Senate, and she has testified that she participated in the discussion to fire Adams.

Hobbs apologized to Adams in 2019, but after trial last week, issued a statement through a spokesperson blaming the majority Republicans as the ultimate decisionmakers on staffing. That waffling has drawn criticism from Adams herself and now, some of the state's most prominent leaders of color.

"We ask that all persons, especially people of color, reconsider any support for Katie Hobbs to become the next governor of Arizona, as a direct consequence of her unjust actions toward attorney Adams, and refusal to neither admit discrimination occurred, nor take responsibility for her role in the retaliatory termination," a statement dated Nov. 12 and signed by Campbell and others reads.

The statement which was first reported by Phoenix's 12News, is from Campbell; NAACP state President Charles Fanniel; former lawmaker Art Hamilton, who battled former Gov. Evan Mecham to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday; former Phoenix City Council member Michael Johnson; former lawmaker and Arizona Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy; and the Rev. Warren Stewart Sr. of the First Institutional Baptist Church of Phoenix.

Hobbs' campaign spokesperson, Jennah Rivera, did not return The Arizona Republic's call Monday seeking comment.

Still other Black leaders were not as willing to criticize Hobbs. House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen and a candidate for Secretary of State, issued a statement Monday congratulating Adams — that did not mention Hobbs at all.

Bolding decried pay disparities in the Legislature that he said "still persist."

"This is unacceptable and it is my expectation that both the speaker of the house and senate president take note of this. It should not take individual litigation for employees to be treated fairly at the Capitol."

Adams argued in her lawsuit that she was fired for objecting to Senate leaders after discovering her pay was about $30,000 less than white male counterparts. The state argued during the trial that Adams abandoned her job and went outside of established rules for bringing complaints. Hobbs testified that she had lost trust in Adams, according to trial transcripts.

Adams went to trial twice, first being awarded $1 million and winning reinstatement to her post as a senior policy adviser before a federal judge ordered a second trial be held. Last week, another federal jury handed down another verdict for Adams, this time awarding her $2.75 million, though because of caps in federal law Adams will only see a relatively small portion of that award.

Adams' "only fault was that she was a Black woman who complained about the Senate’s discriminatory treatment against her," the statement from the group of Black leaders reads. "We are proud of Ms. Adams for taking her stance against this longstanding problem of racism at the state Capitol and celebrate her for efforts to be successful in this fight."

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.