Democrat J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign fired two workers on Friday after the release of an Instagram photo of one of the staffers wearing a charcoal face mask that resembles blackface.
Campaign officials insisted the incident was not racial in nature and initially said the employees in question would be suspended without pay for exercising poor judgment.
Fellow Democrats condemned the stunt as offensive and unacceptable, although some disagreed whether it was deliberate racism or just “the height of stupidity.”
“What is going on with these idiots!!” tweeted Ald. George Cardenas (12th). “Where were they educated? Forget suspension, be gone!!!”
Within hours, the two staffers were ousted, with their LinkedIn pages also gone.
The Instagram post by Carolyn Mehta — whom LinkedIn earlier identified as the campaign’s Deputy Get Out The Vote Director — comes as the Pritzker campaign faces a lawsuit from staffers alleging racial discrimination.
Mehta accused one of the plaintiffs in the suit of leaking the Instagram photo.
Lawyers who filed the suit applauded the firings, telling the Sun-Times “the campaign has shown a willingness to meaningfully address racial discrimination.”
The post was part of an Instagram story put up October 21. Instagram stories feature photos or videos and last just 24 hours but can be preserved or copied. The Sun-Times obtained the image Thursday night.
The screengrab features a campaign worker wearing a “JB & Juliana For Illinois” T-shirt and wearing a black substance on his face. The man is smiling in the image, which appears to have been taken in an office. The word “psycho” has been written on the image in a heart above the photo. The man also appears to still have some of the black substance on his hands.
Asked about the picture, Mehta told the Sun-Times in a Facebook message: “It was a charcoal face mask.”
Charcoal face masks are typically used as beauty products to help unclog pores and cleanse the skin. They are mass-produced and available at most drug stores.
In a statement, the Pritzker campaign on Friday morning said both employees had been suspended without pay.
“The individual in the photo had applied and was wearing a charcoal face mask after work hours on the weekend. A fellow employee took a video and posted it on Instagram,” Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen said in a statement. “While it showed poor judgment, neither employee intended to take part in offensive behavior. However, given the poor judgment exercised here, both the individual in the photo and the individual who posted the photo will be suspended without pay.”
But by the afternoon, the campaign announced the two had been fired.
“This photo was posted on a private Instagram account and after finding out about it this morning, both individuals were immediately suspended without pay. After further investigation, both staffers have been fired,” the campaign said in a later statement.
In their earlier response, the Pritzker campaign provided a video of the man putting on the face mask, with others nearby laughing. The video was provided on the condition that it not be published.
“You want it to look like a spackled ceiling from the 80s,” the man with the darkened face says. When asked when the video was taken, the campaign said it was taken the same day as the Instagram post. The campaign also provided a photo of the mask product, also on the condition that it not be published.
Mehta in Facebook messages told the Sun-Times that she believed the photo was submitted by a plaintiff of the racial discrimination lawsuit.
“It was taken completely out of context,” Mehta said, adding that the man in the face mask was “pampering himself after a long day.”
“It was completely harmless,” she said. Mehta also provided the full video she posted, which shows the man doing a Hannibal Lecter impersonation while wearing the face mask.
Mehta has worked for the campaign since June. She previously worked for the Service Employees International Union — one of the unions with an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times — and was also a field organizer for President Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign in Virginia, according to LinkedIn.
Mehta said she has been a “tireless advocate for racial equality” her entire life and “anyone who knows me knows that.”
Jeanette Samuels, one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs in the Pritzker racial discrimination federal lawsuit, applauded the campaign’s response in ousting the employees.
“We appreciate that, at least, the campaign has shown a willingness to meaningfully address racial discrimination,” Samuels said. “Blackface is offensive and ought not to be tolerated, especially in the workplace.”
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, who is the Democratic candidate for Illinois Attorney General and appeared at a press conference Friday morning with Pritzker’s running mate State Rep. Juliana Stratton, applauded the Pritzker campaign for quickly responding to the post.
“This type of behavior is offensive and unconscionable,” Raoul said in a statement. “It shouldn’t be tolerated, and I’m glad to hear that immediate action was taken with those involved.”
But State Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, who is also serving as the interim executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois wrote in a Twitter exchange that the “charcoal mask incident was the height of stupidity, both in the context of current events and American history.”
“Stupidity and intention differ, and one deserves more mercy than the other, though neither is acceptable,” Mitchell wrote.
Blackface makeup is widely viewed as racist and this week led to the end of an NBC talk show after its host, Megyn Kelly, appeared to defend its use as part of a Halloween costume.
NBC on Friday said it had cancelled “Megyn Kelly Today” and will replace her show with “Today” anchors. The announcement comes after Kelly on Tuesday questioned whether wearing “blackface” is racist, while also saying it was “OK” to wear it as a costume when she was a child. Kelly later apologized.
A series of controversies involving race have dogged the Pritzker campaign. The campaign is currently fighting the legal battle in federal court after 10 minority campaign workers claimed racial discrimination. Pritzker has called those allegations “untrue.”
Earlier this year, in February, Pritzker publicly apologized after transcripts of a secretly recorded conversation were published between him and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In the conversation, the two men are discussing what African-American politician would make most sense to fill the Senate vacancy left by Barack Obama after he was elected president. Pritzker said Secretary of State Jesse White would be “least offensive” but calls then-State Senate President Emil Jones “crass.”