Ten political workers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate JB Pritzker have filed a federal lawsuit against the campaign, alleging racial discrimination against black and Latino field operatives. Pritzker dismissed the claims Wednesday as untrue.
Nine of the campaign workers are black, and all but one of the 10 began working as low-level field operatives for Pritzker’s campaign at some point after June 2018, according to the lawsuit that was filed less than three weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.
“At all times relevant, the JB Pritzker for Governor campaign has been a cesspool of racial discrimination and harassment,” the lawsuit alleges.
In one instance cited in the lawsuit, a former worker alleged she was assigned to do field work in Peoria and be housed with a family “friendly to the campaign.” But when the family discovered she was black, they would not allow her to stay in their house, forcing the woman to sleep in her car and at a Peoria campaign office, the lawsuit alleged.
The plaintiffs also contend that they were not allowed to telecommute, as some white employees were permitted to do; were not given the same access to Pritzker as other field organizers; were subjected to “crass and racially discriminatory language”; and were forced to work in unsafe conditions.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, went on to point out failings of a mandatory September cultural sensitivity training session by the Pritzker campaign for staffers, including how the “person hired by the campaign to do the training used racial epitaphs (sic)” during the presentation.
In a statement, Pritzker denied the allegations.
“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.”
The campaign also released a letter from the law firm representing the former workers, Chicago-based Samuels & Associates, in which a demand for payment of $7.5 million was made to forego litigation.
“That’s not a good-faith effort,” said Pritzker’s running mate, state Rep. Juliana Stratton, who is black. “The incidents listed in this complaint are baseless and make offensive claims in regard to several members of our staff. We stand by our staff, and that’s why we are not afraid to litigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”
Eight of the 10 staffers who are plaintiffs in the case remain employed at the Pritzker campaign.
The state Republican Party seized on the lawsuit filing, saying it reinforces what Pritzker said in a secretly recorded telephone conversation with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in which the two are reviewing a list of black candidates who could fill Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in late 2008.
That FBI wiretap surfaced in a February Chicago Tribune report, and Rauner’s campaign has built an advertising campaign around Pritzker’s use of the phrase “least offensive” as he and the former governor are going through a list of potential successors to Obama, who then was president-elect.
"The lawsuit filed against JB Pritzker's campaign is simply the latest in a long line of incidents that prove that when it comes to the African-American community, Pritzker's actions don't back up his words. Here, we have his own staffers — seasoned political operatives — alleging racial discrimination and harassment,” said Travis Sterling, executive director of the state GOP.
“We have heard from Pritzker's own mouth referring to black elected officials as ‘offensive’ on an FBI wiretap with Rod Blagojevich. It's finally time for JB Pritzker to answer for his actions," he said.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.