By Mike Riopell and Rick Pearson
Three weeks before Election Day, staffers who have worked for J.B. Pritzker's campaign have filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in their months on the job, accusations the Democratic governor candidate quickly called "just not true."
The lawsuit comes in the final stretch of an increasingly bitter campaign between Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner that has seen both sides break spending records and accuse one another of criminal activity.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that African-American and Latino campaign staffers "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." Of the 10 campaign staffers named as plaintiffs in the suit, nine are black and one is a Latina.
The Pritzker campaign Wednesday morning produced part of a letter from early October in which the plaintiffs' attorneys ask for $7.5 million, plus the hiring of a diversity officer in the final weeks of the race and anti-discrimination training. The campaign declined to release the full letter or its response.
"To be clear, this is just not true," Pritzker said in a statement. "I am incredibly proud of our campaign, how diverse it is, and how inclusive our administration will be."
His running mate, Juliana Stratton, said that "when people feel like they have been harassed or discriminated against, they have the right to come forward and have their voices heard." She said the $7.5 million request wasn't "a good-faith effort."
The 10-page federal lawsuit says Pritzker's campaign includes more than 200 workers and 90 field directors. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that "the vast majority of Black and Latino field organizers are herded into POD 4," a group of organizers focused on Chicago's South and West sides. It also alleges that an African-American organizer in Peoria "was hired (to) meet a 'Black Female organizer quota.'"
The lawsuit makes reference to Pritzker's comments about black politicians that were secretly recorded on an FBI wiretap of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's phone.
Pritzker in February issued a public apology saying he regretted remarks he made about African-American politicians with Blagojevich during a 2008 discussion about filling Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.
The Chicago Tribune published the Nov. 14, 2008 conversation in which Pritzker floats Secretary of State Jesse White's name for the Senate vacancy created by Obama's election as the nation's first black president.
Pritzker tells Blagojevich that a White appointment will "cover you on the African-American thing" and that White is the "least offensive" among candidates for the job. Speaking about other options, Pritzker refers to then-state Senate President Emil Jones as "crass" and then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. as a "nightmare." Pritzker and Blagojevich later mimic the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor whose inflammatory rhetoric had become a campaign issue in the 2008 presidential contest.
Rauner, speaking at an unrelated appearance outside a Gold Coast hotel, called the lawsuit "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.
In recent weeks, Rauner has emphasized Pritzker's comments to Blagojevich on the government recordings -- an attempt to weaken turnout for the Democrat among a core constituency.
"Unfortunately this seems to be a pattern with Mr. Pritzker," Rauner said, referencing the recordings. He added, "I'm not sure that any of us should be surprised that his campaign may have engaged in discriminatory practices."
When asked the percentage of black and Latino working on his campaign or in his administration, Rauner said he didn't have a figure. Instead, he said rather than focusing on staff, "it's results for families."
"I don't know the exact number. In our campaign we've got African-American members of our campaign. We have Latino members. I don't know the exact numbers," he said. "Our administration has (a) huge number and I've appointed many African Americans to key boards, key leadership positions in our departments and many Latinos as well."
Asked to name minorities in top campaign roles, Rauner said, "I don't know that there's a ranking. We have people at all different levels up and down our campaign operations all over the state." He ultimately cited one African American as a "senior advisor" in his campaign.
Of the plaintiffs in Tuesday's lawsuit, only one has worked for Pritzker's campaign longer than a year, while the others were hired this summer. According to the lawsuit, most have prior political experience, including three who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
One plaintiff, James B. Tinsely, was elected in 2016 to the Champaign County Board. Tinsely could not immediately be reached for comment.
An attorney for the staffers, Jeanette Samuels, told the Tribune on Wednesday that she is a longtime Democrat. Another attorney in the case, Shay Allen, gave $1,250 to Democratic Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's campaign in 2016 and 2017 and $250 to city Treasurer Kurt Summers' campaign.
The case is unlikely to be resolved before the Nov. 6 election. No court dates had been scheduled as of Wednesday morning.
Chicago Tribune's Todd Lighty contributed.
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