EXCLUSIVE: Katie Hobbs defends firing Talonya Adams, says race and gender weren’t factors
Katie Hobbs via Twitter/@katiehobbs
Katie Hobbs defended her role in firing policy adviser Talonya Adams from the Senate in 2015, saying the termination was for performance and other issues, not because of her race or gender.
Speaking publicly for the first time since federal jury found that the Senate fired Adams was for complaining about discriminatory pay, which a previous jury concluded was low because she’s a Black woman, Hobbs told the Arizona Mirror there was a pattern of issues that dated back to November 2014, months before the firing, when Hobbs was first elected minority leader — including some that the Senate didn’t present at trial.
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Hobbs, who is now Arizona’s secretary of state and the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in next year’s gubernatorial race, would not elaborate on the alleged problems with Adams’ performance in an interview with the Arizona Mirror, saying she could be personally liable for raising issues that weren’t on the record from the recently concluded trial. The Senate, not Hobbs, was the defendant whom Adams sued in federal court.
But Hobbs stood by her testimony in both trials that she had lost trust and confidence in Adams, which led to her termination.
“I can say with certainty on my part, my decision in the termination was not based on race or gender. There were other factors,” she said.
Adams did not respond to a request for comment, but said on Twitter that Hobbs was lying and embarking on a “whisper campaign” against her, all while denying what two juries had said: that she was discriminated against.
As a licensed lawyer, it hurts that @SecretaryHobbs @katiehobbs w/racial animus fired me, an ‘excellent’ #azleg AA policy advisor, forced me to seek judicial redress, then 2470 days later disavows two unanimous federal jury verdicts and retaliates w/a malicious whisper campaign. https://t.co/CWyOmC2SwY
— Talonya Adams, 🇺🇸 Esq. (@TalonyaAdams) November 19, 2021
Hobbs has said that Senate Republican chief of staff Wendy Baldo was the ultimate decision-maker when it came to the firing, which led Adams to criticize her former boss for not taking responsibility for her actions. Hobbs acknowledged her “participation” in Adams’ firing, but described it as a joint decision between her, Baldo and Democratic chief of staff Jeff Winkler.
“We had several conversations throughout the course of the week, and it was a decision that we came to together. I said that in trial and I stand by that,” Hobbs said. “I take responsibility for my role in that. But, again, it wasn’t based on gender or race. And the person who ultimately did the termination was the Senate majority chief of staff.”
Baldo testified that she fired Adams at the request of Hobbs and Winkler, while Winkler testified that Baldo would never have fired a Democratic staffer against the minority leader’s wishes.
There are systemic issues with the pay and with employment practices in the legislature that continue to this day. And that is a system that treated Ms. Adams poorly. It’s stacked against women, people of color and, frankly, all the staffers that work for the minority party.
– Katie Hobbs
At the heart of the matter was Adams’ salary. Adams learned she was paid less than most of her white, male colleagues in February 2015, after Legislative Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, published data about legislative staff salaries. Adams subsequently asked Baldo about the process for requesting a raise. She had previously raised the issue with Hobbs, who told her that pay increases would be discussed once the legislative session ended.
Adams was fired after taking time off from work to go to Seattle to help her 19-year-old son, who had been hospitalized with heart problems. She had discussed the matter with Winkler on a Friday, and the two were scheduled to meet the following Monday morning to discuss both her salary concerns and her taking time off. She ended up flying to Seattle over the weekend and leaving a message for Winkler on a main voicemail for Senate Democratic staff. Winkler was unaware of the message until later in the day and had been attempting to find out why Adams missed their meeting and failed to show up at work.
Baldo told Adams later in the week that she was being terminated. Hobbs has testified that Adams’ lack of communication constituted abandonment of her job and that there was no “handoff” of her job duties when she left the state.
At the time of her firing, Adams’ salary was $60,000, the second-lowest among Democratic staffers. Fellow policy adviser John Fetherston, a white male, was paid $52,000 at the time. The lowest paid Republican staffer at the time, policy adviser Garth Kamp, was paid $84,000.
Hobbs said Adams’ salary was unfair, but for reasons unrelated to her race or gender. Republicans have controlled the legislature for decades and simply pay Democratic staff less than their own staffers, she said. Hobbs said the Democrats generally have more diverse staffs than the majority party, which leads to people of color often being paid less than white colleagues.
“There is a system in place in employment in the legislature that is stacked against the folks in the minority party,” Hobbs said. “Those are two separate things. But that is the majority who controls the budget and who controls all of the personnel issues that is responsible for that system of inequity.”
Adams’ pay was unfairly low because she was a Democrat, Hobbs said, not because she was Black or a woman. She said she got raises for her staffers each of the four years she served as minority leader, but that she wishes she could have done more.
“There are systemic issues with the pay and with employment practices in the legislature that continue to this day. And that is a system that treated Ms. Adams poorly. It’s stacked against women, people of color and, frankly, all the staffers that work for the minority party,” Hobbs said.
However, Adams’ salary was commensurate with other staffers in similar positions, Hobbs said, and was higher than another staffer who was in an equivalent position.
Though Hobbs disagreed with the jury’s reasoning in both trials, she said the Senate should not appeal the verdict on Adams’ firing. She won in court twice — Adams, who is a lawyer, represented herself both times — and Hobbs said there’s no interest that would be served by an appeal.
Senate President Karen Fann said she has not decided yet whether to appeal the verdict.
The verdict in the Adams case has cast a pall over Hobbs’ gubernatorial campaign. She has two opponents in the Democratic primary, but thanks to her position and the high profile she has due to her opposition to the so-called “audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Hobbs has long been heavily favored to win her party’s nomination.
Now, other Democrats are questioning her commitment to women and people of color. A coalition of Black leaders has urged people to “reconsider” their support for her. Adams told the Mirror that she believes Hobbs is unfit to serve as governor.
“I really think she has no regard for people of color. She has no curiosity about them. She remains woefully uneducated about diversity, about inclusion, about racial discrimination, about sex discrimination,” Adams said after winning the second trial.
Katie Hobbs isn’t ‘fit to serve’ as governor after discriminatory firing, staffer says
Hobbs said pay equity and fighting discrimination are still core issues for her, and that she’ll continue to fight to earn every Arizonan’s vote.
“I’m committed to doing the work I need to do, listening to communities of color and working to earn their support, but also be a governor that works for everybody. And I will deliver for them. That is not just lip service,” she said.
Despite accusations that she’s not an ally to people of color or women, Hobbs urged people to look at her total record.
During her eight years as a lawmaker, she noted that she sponsored equal pay legislation and advocated for the legislature to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, and as minority leader she hired several Hispanic women and successfully obtained raises for her staff.. As secretary of state, Hobbs said she increased the number of people of color on the staff and in leadership roles, increased salaries for people earning less than $15 an hour and created a community advisory council to register new Black, Latino and Native American voters. And in her career as a social worker, she said worked on behalf of the most vulnerable people in society.
“I would ask people to judge me on my whole record and the things I’ve done as a social worker, the things I fought for in the Senate, the things I’ve done as secretary of state and will continue to do as governor,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs wouldn’t comment on whether the verdict will make it more difficult for her to win next year’s Democratic primary. Asked whether the verdict will be a liability for her and other Democrats in the general election, where the Republicans are certain to make it a major issue, Hobbs said, “This is something that happened seven years ago. There was a trial two years ago. It’s not a new issue. And I am going to continue to work to earn the trust and support of Arizona voters.”
***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include comments Talonya Adams posted on Twitter.
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