Ten campaign workers for Democrat J.B. Pritzker have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the gubernatorial nominee of running a campaign that is “a cesspool of racial discrimination and harassment.”
Arguing that Pritzker perpetuated racial discrimination by “herding” black and Latino workers into less desirable jobs than white staffers, the ten are demanding a variety of reforms — and a cool $7.5 million from the billionaire philanthropist to settle the case.
Filed in U.S. District Court just 20 days before the election, the suit includes allegations of racial discrimination, including sending African-American and Latino field organizers to perform “racist tasks,” such as being asked to “go round up 40 Black guys” for an event.
The suit offers a very blunt account of working for the campaign — beginning with “JB Pritzker for Governor has a race problem.”
Pritzker released a statement saying the accusations are “not true.” And his running mate state Rep. Juliana Stratton called the suit “baseless.”
The plaintiffs allege that while the campaign has hired African-American and Latino workers, “the vast majority are herded into race-specific positions where they are expected to interact with the public, offered no meaningful chance for advancement, and receive less favorable treatment than their white counterparts who engage with, as the campaign sees it, a more desirable constituency.”
“At all times relevant, the JB Prtizker for Governor campaign has been cesspool of racial discrimination and harassment,” according to the suit.
The suit was filed by Maxwell Little, Jason Benton, Jelani Coleman, Celia Colon, Kasmine Calhoun, Erica Kimble, Nathaniel Madison, Tiffany Madison, James B. Tinsley and Mark Walker — all field organizers.
In response, the Pritzker campaign released a “demand letter” the plaintiffs’ attorney had sent to the campaign Oct. 5. That letter included a request for “actual and punitive damages in the sum of $7.5 million.” It gave an Oct. 8 deadline for the “compensation offer,” while also threatening “legal remedies.”
The letter also includes a request for Pritzker to write them each a “personalized letter of recommendation.” The plaintiffs also want Pritzker: to hire a chief diversity officer within seven days; “create a meaningful anti-discrimination policy”; conduct mandatory anti-discrimination training; post all job openings in each office in a timely manner; and “cease and desist from engaging in discriminatory practices under Title VII.
The suit lists several “examples of racial discrimination,” including sending African-American and Latino field organizers to “perform racists [sic] tasks such as to, ‘go round up 40 Black guys’ for an event;” denying minority field organizers the same privileges and resources as white field organizers, including “housing and a safe place to work” and access to Pritzker at events they had planned.
The suit says their complaints were ignored and alleges the use of “crass and racially discriminatory language” as well as attempts to “intimidate and harangue Latino and African American organizers for standing up for their constitutional rights.”
The suit claims one of the field offices was in an unsafe location and their request to work remotely was denied.
“And when they asked why JB Pritzker did not visit their office, they were told that ‘he’ll visit when they stop shooting,’” according to the lawsuit. “Apparently the Region 6 Office is safe enough for Black and Latino men and women, but not a white man.”
In a lengthy statement, Stratton defended the Pritzker campaign, saying she’s proud of it.
“The majority of our senior team are African American and almost 45 percent of our entire staff are people of color. … When people feel like they have been harassed or discriminated against, they have the right to come forward and have their voices heard,” Stratton said. “In this case, we had a letter delivered to us asking for $7.5 million dollars in 24 hours or they threatened legal action and to go to press. That’s not a good-faith effort.”
The letter the campaign provided was dated Oct. 5, and gave an Oct. 8 deadline.
Stratton, who is African-American, called the examples provided in the suit “baseless.”
“We stand by our staff and that’s why we are not afraid to litigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
Pritzker issued a brief statement: “To be clear. This is just not true,” he said. “I am incredibly proud of our campaign, how diverse it is, and how inclusive our administration will be.”
Asked about the $7.5 million demand, Jeanette Samuels, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Sun-Times the request is “fair.”
“We tried to come up with a number that was fair but represented the seriousness of the misconduct our clients have been living with daily,” Samuels said. “But really, how can you put a price on dignity?”
The suit has dredged up some of Pritzker’s previous racial problems, such as the onslaught of criticism he received in February by the African-American community after the Chicago Tribune released recordings of FBI wiretapped conversations he had with imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In one, Pritzker describes Secretary of State Jesse White as the “least offensive” of possible African-American candidates for President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat. In the Nov. 14, 2008 call, Pritzker starts by suggesting Blagojevich consider White to replace Obama because “it covers you on the African-American thing.”
But on Wedneday, Pritzer’s campaign acted as though the earlier controversy never happened.
Facing a barrage of questions about the suit, Pritzker appeared at an event that wasn’t publicized to media in Harvey Wednesday morning with White and Democratic Illinois Attorney General candidate State Sen. Kwame Raoul.
His Republican rival was more eager to talk to reporters.
Asked about the suit Wednesday morning in Chicago, Gov. Bruce Rauner called it “troubling.”
“These allegations are serious. They need to be investigated, and I think the people of Illinois deserve to know the truth about Mr. Pritzker’s actions,” Rauner said.
The governor, too, sought to revisit the Blagojevich tapes, saying Pritzker “used the language of racists.” Rauner called accusations that his own campaign may have played a role in the suit “craziness.”
Although Stratton spoke to NBC on Tuesday night as the campaign sought to defend their position, Pritzker’s lieutenant governor pick was out of the public spotlight on Wednesday.