Talonya Adams verdict looms over Hobbs, governor’s race

By: - November 24, 2021 2:22 pm

Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Just a few weeks ago, things were coming together for Katie Hobbs in a way that few Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Arizona could ever say.

Buoyed by the so-called “audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, a widely mocked affair conducted by conspiracy theorists who reached a series of dubious conclusions after months of work, Hobbs, who as secretary of state serves as Arizona’s top elections official, was secure in her status as the Democratic frontrunner. Her frequent appearances on national cable television programs boosted her fundraising and name recognition to the point that most observers had simply penciled her in for the general election, despite having two opponents in the Democratic primary.

The dynamics of the Hobbs campaign and the governor’s race changed dramatically this month when a federal jury found in favor of Talonya Adams, who was fired from her job as a policy advisor for the Senate Democrats in 2015, when Hobbs was the chamber’s minority leader. 

In 2019, a jury in federal court agreed with Adams, a Black woman who argued that she was underpaid in the Senate as a result of racial and gender discrimination. And a jury sided with Adams again earlier this month when it found that she was fired for complaining about that discriminatory pay.

Now, many Democrats worry about what the verdicts mean for the gubernatorial race. 

Hobbs “is treating this issue with the utmost seriousness and takes responsibility for her role, and is continuing to learn how to be a better ally. The verdict remains the same as in 2019, which shows the facts haven’t changed — in fact, these systemic inequities still exist in the state legislature. Katie will continue to do what is necessary to address these systemic issues,” her campaign said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror.

In a recent interview with the Mirror, Hobbs noted that the firing was nearly seven years ago and the first trial was two years ago. It’s “not a new issue,” she said.

However, many political observers expect the jury decision for Adams, and the underlying issues behind it, to be a problem for her in both the primary and general elections. 

Equitable pay across racial and gender lines is a core issue for the Democratic base. The finding that Hobbs acted in a discriminatory manner has led to an outpouring of criticism. A group of African-American leaders penned a letter urging people of color to “reconsider” their support for her. Adams has said Hobbs is “unfit” to serve as governor

Hobbs’ response to the verdict has fanned the flames. She defended Adams’ firing as not discriminatory and not a result of her race or gender, saying there were problems with her performance, including some that she alleges weren’t disclosed during the four-year federal court battle. 

“I don’t think Democrats can afford to have any candidate who is under a cloud to start off,” said Ann Wallack, a former chairwoman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party.

Wallack said she’s been supporting Hobbs, and wants to continue doing so. But she also wants to be responsive to the feelings of the African-American community and other minority groups. If they think Hobbs is untenable as a candidate, Wallack said that’s of great concern to her.

Roy Herrera, a prominent Democratic campaign attorney, said Hobbs’ explanation for the firing doesn’t square with what the jury found. And her claim that there were other, undisclosed issues that led to Adams’ firing is problematic as well, he said. The issue won’t go away, he said, unless she’s able to more satisfactorily answer some of these questions. 

A little contrition for her role in the firing, an acknowledgement of Adams’ pain and suffering, could have gone a long way, Herrera said. 

“I didn’t read anything in that response or explanation … that let us know how she would address this problem going forward. What is her plan for ensuring that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again or wouldn’t happen to anyone else ever again?” he said.

Aaron Lieberman, a recently resigned state legislator who is challenging Hobbs in the Democratic primary, said the issues surrounding the verdicts in the Adams case simply aren’t going to go away. Republicans are already looking at the verdict as something they can use in the general election to suppress Black voter turnout and use against Hobbs, if she’s the Democratic nominee, he said. 

“I think the biggest concern is that Republicans will drive a truck through this in the general election. That’s just the reality of the situation,” Lieberman said. 

There’s no doubt that Republicans have keyed in on the issue. 

Daniel Scarpinato, a GOP political operative and former chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey, said he’ll be shocked if the Adams verdict doesn’t become a focal point of the Republicans’ campaign against Hobbs next fall. 

Between the Republican nominee and the outside groups that run ads to support them, a lot of money goes into gubernatorial races, Scarpinato said. And that money will be used to hammer Hobbs with the discrimination verdict, including Adams’ searing indictment of Hobbs. 

“These are races that a lot of money gets put into, and we can all picture that in the Phoenix media market with a thousand points a week behind it,” Scarpinato said. “If I’m her campaign, I would just assume that this is going to have a lot of weight and a lot of money and a lot of energy behind it.”

The Black leaders who signed the letter warning against support for Hobbs weren’t swayed by her explanation. One, former lawmaker Art Hamilton, has since endorsed Marco Lopez, one of her opponents in the Democratic primary. Others have yet to announce support for any candidate. But whatever happens, it’s clear that their support won’t go to Hobbs.

Cloves Campbell, a former legislator, said he wanted to hear an admission of wrongdoing from Hobbs, and wanted her to say what she’ll do to fix those problems. If she’s not going to do that, he said, Black leaders and voters can support someone else.

“African-American communities are tired of hearing people say things about us and do things against us and then expect us to turn the other cheek,” Campbell said. “We’ve run out of cheeks and we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”

Another African-American leader who signed the letter, Warren Stewart Sr., a pastor who has been on the front lines of Arizona’s civil rights battles since the 1980s, said Hobbs’ response to the verdict was too little, too late. Asked if he wants to hear an apology from her, Stewart told the Mirror, “I don’t want to hear anything from Katie Hobbs.”

Hobbs needs to reach out to the African-American community and offer a heartfelt apology, said Mario Diaz, a lobbyist and longtime Democratic operative. 

“The courts have spoken and she needs to apologize to community leaders,” Diaz said. “Whether she did anything, quote, wrong or not, the perception and the legal judgment was that there was bias towards a person of color. And the buck stops at the leadership position.”

Still, most observers expect Hobbs to win the Democratic nomination, at least against the current field. 

That could change if another major candidate joins the race. Herrera said someone who can raise money and has significant support within the party would have a shot at wresting the nomination from her. But for now, Hobbs, though weakened, maintains her role as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary. 

“My guess is that she still wins the primary, that despite this she still is the nominee. And then she goes into the general election with this as a liability,” Herrera said. “I don’t think it’s over. I don’t think she’s sunk necessarily at this point. But whether she is or not really depends on … whether she’s able to answer these questions in a satisfactory way.”

Exactly what effect the Adams verdict will have on Hobbs in the general election, if she makes it there, remains to be seen. Though Republicans are sure to make a major issue of it, Diaz said attacks from the GOP will ring hollow on matters of race relations. 

If Hobbs makes it out of the primary, that likely means she still has a significant amount of support, Campbell said, though that doesn’t diminish what happened with Adams. Whether Hobbs can get support from Black voters in the general election will depend on what she does moving forward. Campbell said she’ll have to be sure to include African Americans in her campaign if she gets that far. 

Campbell didn’t doubt that Republicans will use the Adams situation against Hobbs and that’ll make it harder for her to win.

“That’s what the Republicans do,” he said. “At the same time, what are the Republicans doing to garner the African-American vote? It works on both sides of the fence. Just because we’re upset with her doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically give our votes to them.”


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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”