A federal judge Tuesday denied a bid by the Senate to overturn a $2.75 million discrimination award against the Senate, leaving Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and state Democrats scrambling to blunt the effects of the verdict on her gubernatorial ambitions.
In a brief order, Judge Douglas Rayes rejected arguments by attorneys for the Senate that Talonya Adams presented no credible evidence that she ever complained to Hobbs and others in 2015 about disparate pay on the basis of race or sex. Hobbs was Senate minority leader at the time Adams, a Democratic staffer, was fired.
Rayes said there was sufficient evidence for a jury to accept Adams’ arguments about the complaints she made. And that, the judge said, precludes him from second-guessing the decision by jurors that she was not just the victim of discrimination — what the first jury concluded in 2019 — but that her firing was retaliation for complaining.
Hobbs, engaged in what is now a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor, has refused to speak with reporters about the verdict.
Instead, she had campaign publicist Jennah Rivera put out a statement denying that Adams was the victim of discrimination. Instead, Rivera said it was simply due to the fact that Republicans who control the chamber pay their staffers more than the Democrats.
And Rivera, seeking to put some distance between Hobbs and the firing, also said that Adams was dismissed not by Hobbs but by Wendy Baldo, who was the Republican chief of staff.
But records from two separate trials, one in 2019 and one that concluded earlier this month, paint a different picture.
Potentially more damaging to Hobbs’ political future is that key members of the African-American community are lashing out at not just what happened in 2015 but what some see as her failure now, even after those two verdicts, to acknowledge any culpability. The closest Hobbs has come to acknowledging any culpability was during the trial when she said she wished she had “been a better ally” to Adams at the time.
And that could deprive her of the votes she needs, not just to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary but, assuming she survives, to defeat whoever the Republicans nominate.
“The fact of the matter is, we don’t trust Katie Hobbs,” Cloves Campbell told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday. He is a former lawmaker and the publisher of the Arizona Informant and was one of the six African-American leaders who put out a statement following the second verdict. He said it’s now about what he sees as her failure to take responsibility.
“If she can do that kind of stuff while she’s in the legislature, if she can sit there and lie as secretary of state, what can we expect from her as governor?” he asked.
Sandra Kennedy, a former legislator and current member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, said she believes that Hobbs’ actions make her unacceptable.
With Hobbs not talking, that has left it to her political allies to put out statements echoing her own explanation that Adams was paid less than others was strictly a partisan thing because the Republicans who control the Senate pay their own staffers more.
“We all serve the people of Arizona and our staff deserve more equitable pay policies,” said Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, the current Senate minority leader.
And Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, Rios’ counterpart in the House, thanked Adams “for bringing out for all to see the pay inequities between Democratic and Republican legislative staff.”
There is evidence that Adams, who was being paid $60,000, was getting nearly $30,000 less than a staffer who advised Senate Republicans on some of the same policy issues. But she wasn’t fired until, after learning about the disparity, that she complained to not just her immediate supervisors but to others.
None of that, however, counters the findings of the jury in the first trial which found that Adams proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Senate “discriminated against her with respect to her pay, and both race and sex were a contributing factor.” The only reason for a second trial was that Rayes said Adams, who represented herself, had failed to submit evidence that she was retaliated against for complaining about her salary.
That left the second jury to decide not just the retaliation claim — which they did in her favor — but deciding that she should be awarded $2.75 million.
There are other issues.
Hobbs said it was Baldo who fired Adams. But at trial, Hobbs testified that the decision to terminate Adams was a “group decision” which also included Baldo and senior Democratic staffers.
Hobbs also said she had “lost trust” in Adams, at least in part because she had left to care for her son who had a medical emergency in Seattle. But there was evidence at trial that Hobbs had told her direct supervisor about the trip and he did not object.
As to claims by Hobbs’ Democratic allies that this is all about partisan pay differentials, the records don’t back that up.
The 2015 analysis report on legislative staff salaries published by Legislative Report, a division of Arizona Capitol Times, did find that Adams was paid less than every other Senate GOP staffer. But it also shows that four of the five Democratic staffers all also were paid more than she was.
There’s also the fact that when the judge ordered Adams to be rehired in 2019 she was given a salary of $113,900. She remains a Senate staffer.
And finally there are the instructions that Rayes gave to the jury before deliberation.
He told them that the only way they could find that Adams was the victim of illegal retaliation was if they believe that she had been fired because she opposed “an unlawful employment practice” and complained about it. And while race and sex discrimination are unlawful, political discrimination is not.
The question now is the political damage to Hobbs.
Both Marco Lopez and Aaron Lieberman, her foes for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, wasted no time after the second trial to say the verdict raises questions about Hobbs’ ability to lead. But that doesn’t mean either will get the backing of the African-American community leaders who may be looking for someone else.
“There’s still time to bring somebody,” Campbell said. “But she’s not the answer for us.”