Democrat J.B. Pritzker on Thursday publicly pushed back against an explosive racial discrimination federal lawsuit filed this week by 10 African American and Hispanic campaign employees — attributing it to the “craziness in the last few weeks of the campaign.”
“The claims that have been made are untrue,” Pritzker said.
With just 19 days to go before the end of what’s become a bitter gubernatorial contest, the lawsuit was an unexpected campaign development for Pritzker, who is up by double digits in several polls and has touted his plans for minorities — and his openings of field offices throughout Chicago — since last year.
But Pritzker is also managing a giant statewide campaign, full of campaign employees. Including health insurance, Pritzker has spent $12.2 million to pay his campaign staff, campaign finance reports show.
Both Pritzker and running mate Juliana Stratton told reporters on Thursday that they had heard no complaints of racial discrimination within the campaign. And Pritzker, a billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, said the monetary demand for $7.5 million took him by surprise.
“I have never experienced this sort of thing, no,” he said.
Standing in front of the James R. Thompson Center on Thursday morning, Pritzker said he is proud of the campaign he’s assembled, with 45 percent of his staff being minorities. The billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist also vowed to “litigate it [the suit] to the fullest extent of the law.”
“And Juliana and I are proud that we put together a campaign, the center piece of which is inclusion and diversity, and we’re going to have the most diverse administration in the history of the state of Illinois.”
Pritzker’s campaign first went on damage control on Wednesday, releasing statements from both the gubernatorial candidate and Stratton. Pritzker made a Harvey campaign stop on Wednesday morning, but the press was not notified of the event. He later appeared at an evening event in Joliet where he took questions about the suit.
On Thursday, he and Stratton fielded questions at an unrelated news conference.
The plaintiffs — all field organizers — 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 [sic] 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. Colon was identified as a Latina, the others as African Americans.
In response to the suit, the Pritzker campaign released a “demand letter” from the plaintiffs’ attorneys, dated Oct. 5. that requested a series of reforms and $7.5 million. The attorney gave the campaign an Oct. 8 deadline and threatened to go to the press and file a suit if the demands were not met.
Pritzker noted the timing of the suit, less than three weeks before the election.
“Everybody that has been involved in a campaign before has seen a lot of craziness in the last few weeks of the campaign,” Pritzker said. “So, this is just more, I guess, of what people expect to experience. Having been for the first time the Democratic nominee for governor, you know, I didn’t know really what to expect, but here we are.”
Asked if there could be improvements in the treatment of minorities within the campaign — or if certain requests, such as hiring a chief diversity officer, should be taken seriously — Stratton mentioned there was “training” available to campaign workers.
“Again, we are now 19 days before the end of the campaign. We are focused on doing what we have been doing, which is getting out into every community, all throughout the state, making sure that we’re talking with the people, and we are very proud of the campaign that we have run thus far,” Stratton said.
The campaign also released information designed to poke holes in some of the allegations.
In one social media post, campaign employee DeJuan Jackson calls statements in the suit “inaccurate.”
The lawsuit alleges that as a regional field director, Jackson took “many of the complaints of racial discrimination and harassment” that the plaintiffs made about one field office to higher ups.
“However, in exchange for his silence, he was given a shiny new job and pay raise,” the suit said. “He was also strongly encouraged to cut his dreadlocks; therefore, he no longer comes across as crass and was the least offensive African American that could be put in that spot.”
The suit appeared to be referencing an FBI wiretapped conversation, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, in which Pritzker told former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White would be the “least offensive” African-American politician to replace then President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. Pritzker also referred to then state Senate President Emil Jones as too “crass” to fill the vacancy.
In his Facebook post, Jackson wrote that no one told him to cut his hair or gave him a promotion or “raise of any sort.” He did not specifically address the other allegations in the suit, writing “this will be the first and only statement I have about this!”
“Since 2011, I have fought for injustices for all people in the workplace as well as issues that help policy that suppress the voice of minorities, Jackson wrote. “I was not told by anyone to cut my hair! I cut my hair because that’s something that I wanted to do.”
Jackson called the accusation about his dreadlocks “far-fetched and weak.”
The campaign also produced information about Pritzker and Stratton’s visits to field offices to dispel an account by one plaintiff that Pritzker wouldn’t visit because of the crime in the neighborhood.
The campaign produced schedules showing visits Pritzker had made to a number of the field offices.
Veteran activist Emma Lozano, pastor of Lincoln United Methodist Church, also voiced her support for Pritzker on Thursday.
“I have been a supporter from the very beginning and I am still proud to have endorsed him,” she said in a written statement. “He is a leader that doesn’t only talk about diversity and inclusion, he lives it.”
Asked to respond to Pritzker’s and Stratton’s remarks, Jeanette Samuels, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said she was out of town, “so I haven’t yet had a chance to review their press conference.
“That said, we will have a press conference on Monday morning to try to clear things up.”