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Tim Steller's opinion: Democrats must face top candidate's role in racial discrimination

Tim Steller, Arizona Daily Star

Tim Steller, Metro columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.

When it comes to the Katie Hobbs question, Arizona Democrats need only imagine what they would do if she were a Republican.

If a GOP candidate for governor had been found, essentially, responsible for racial discrimination, sexual discrimination and retaliation, Democrats would not sit quietly. They would howl at the GOP for fielding a racist, sexist candidate.

That would be perfectly defensible. So why are most state Democrats sitting nervously on their hands after a second verdict reiterated Hobbs’ basic culpability in a discriminatory, retaliatory firing?

Well, that’s not hard to figure out. Hobbs is, otherwise, a good Democratic candidate for governor, the best hope in sight to win back the seat they haven’t held since Janet Napolitano stepped down in 2009.

Hobbs is the second-highest office holder in the state, as secretary of state, and she’s built up strong public visibility as an opponent of the Republican review of the 2020 Maricopa County election.

She seemed to have a decent chance against the likes of Republican candidates Karrin Taylor Robson, Matt Salmon and especially the Trump-endorsed Kari Lake.

But then the Talonya Adams case reemerged and demanded, rightfully, to be grappled with.

Adams, an attorney, is a member of the state Senate Democrats’ staff who was fired in February 2015, within two months of Hobbs becoming Senate minority leader. Hobbs did not formally carry out the firing, but the Senate chief of staff did it in consultation with Hobbs and others.

Adams, who is a Black woman, was fired after complaining of low pay compared to her white and male counterparts. She was visiting her son, who was having medical problems in Seattle, when fired.

In a 2019 trial, a jury in Phoenix federal court found that Adams had been discriminated against because of race and sex, and that her job was terminated due to race or sex. They awarded her $1 million, an amount that was reduced by the judge to $300,000 due to federal law.

She also was reinstated in her job, which she still holds.

But the Senate asked for a new trial on the grounds that Adams had not provided evidence of retaliation. So, after a three-day trial ending Nov. 10, a new jury found that Adams had suffered retaliation and awarded her $2.75 million.

That amount is also likely to be reduced by the judge. But the amount is largely beside the point.

The point is that the Democrats’ leading contender for governor, though she was not a defendant in the case, was directly involved in a racially and sexually discriminatory firing.

Neither of Hobbs’ Democratic opponents forgave Hobbs in their comments on the case. Marco Lopez and Aaron Lieberman decried what Lopez termed her “discriminatory behavior.” But their comments were undoubtedly tame compared to what Republicans will justifiably say if Hobbs wins the Democratic nomination.

Yet most Democrats have been cautious or silent in their responses.

Perhaps the explanation is not just that they want Hobbs to win but also that they just don’t see Hobbs as racist, no matter what the jury found. On Tuesday morning, I spoke with David Bradley, the former longtime Democratic legislator from Tucson, about his testimony in the case.

Bradley was serving as minority leader pro tem when the issue broke out in early 2015, and Adams privately sought his counsel, he said.

Her firing, he said, “highlighted a nonexistent personnel system that had operated capriciously for decades.” But as to racial or sex discrimination, Bradley said he couldn’t judge.

“Absent policy, you can make any conjecture, and it’s a reasonable one, because you don’t have any discipline procedures, you have no progressive discipline, you have no job description, nothing. When somebody is dismissed, it can be for any reason under the sun,” he said.

“Do I think Katie is a racist person? No, I don’t,” Bradley went on. “I think she got caught up in a system that was just incompetent and made a decision or recommended a decision that left her open to any explanation.”

Nevertheless, after Adams’ firing, he resigned his leadership post in protest.

I asked Pima County Democratic Party Chair Bonnie Heidler and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, what they thought.

Heidler said “this is a toughie,” adding that “I’m not trying to defend her (Hobbs)” and “I’m glad justice was done.”

Grijalva said of Hobbs’ response to the verdicts: “It’s not a question you dodge.”

“For the secretary of state, and for a gubernatorial candidate, it becomes imperative that she has to deal with it, because there’s accountability there,” he went on. “How it affects her candidacy is up to her.”

Adams has been more pointed in her responses to Hobbs and Democrats, especially after reading a Hobbs statement on the verdict that put much of the blame on Republicans who run the Senate, who paid Democratic staffers lower wages than Republican staffers.

“I do not believe she is fit to serve. I really don’t,” Adams said. “I’m an Arizona native. I’m a lifelong Democrat.”

“There is no place for a leader that does not seek the truth, that does not take responsibility, that is culturally incompetent,” Adams went on. “If Hobbs is the very best that the Democratic Party has, then they have more profound problems than we know.”

If Hobbs is the Democrats’ candidate, Republicans will happily remind voters of this.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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