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Pritzker Staffers Sue Own Campaign For Racial Discrimination

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS
J.B. Pritzker speaks with campaign supporters in Springfield in this 2017 file photo.

The Democratic candidate for Illinois governor is facing a racial discrimination lawsuit against his campaign — from his own campaign workers.

Ten current and former staffers accuse J.B. Pritzker’s campaign operation of subjecting them to harassment and retaliation. Pritzker denies the accusations.

The plaintiffs work or worked as field organizers. They were hired between May and September. According to the complaint, nine are African American and one is Latina.

They allege they were “herded into race-specific positions,” “offered no meaningful chance for advancement,” and forced to work in “unsafe” locations.

Pritzker field organizer Kasmine Calhoun says the campaign assigned her to stay with a family in Peoria. But the offer was withdrawn when the family found out she was black. Instead, the campaign put Calhoun up in a hotel in what the lawsuit describes as an “unsafe part of town.”

The complaint also says the regional office for the South Side of Chicago was in a dangerous neighborhood: "Footlocker (sic) next door was robbed twice in a week; two other stores nearby have been robbed; their office has been cased; a young woman was raped outside their back door; and a gunfight took place right outside their office. All of these crimes happened during the day.”

Other staffers say they were subjected to “crass and racially discriminatory language” and were given tasks like “‘go round up 40 black guys’ for an event.”

In a statement, Pritzker says the allegations are “just not true.”

Juliana Stratton
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Democratic state Rep. Juliana Stratton, who is also J.B. Pritzker's running mate, speaking with supporters last year.

His running mate, state Rep. Juliana Stratton, who is African American, called the claims “baseless” and “offensive.” She says the majority of the campaign’s senior team is black.

Stratton also points out that the plaintiffs had demanded $7.5 million dollars to quietly settle the case.

Instead, Stratton says they'll “litigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

With early voting underway and less than three weeks until Election Day, Pritzker has consistently held a double-digit lead over incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Speaking with reporters after an unrelated event, Rauner linked the lawsuit to a 2008 FBI wiretap recording in which Pritzker disparaged prominent black politicians.

Pritzker was speaking with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who at the time was trying to decide who should get the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama.

Bruce Rauner
Credit Jaclyn Driscoll / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Bruce Rauner speaks at the 2018 Illinois State Fair.

Pritzker is heard referring to one high-ranking black legislator as too “crass,” and another official as the “least offensive” African American he could consider.

Pritzker apologized for those remarks when the Chicago Tribune surfaced them last year. Now Rauner says the comments are part of a pattern in which the lawsuit is just the latest chapter.

“I’m not sure that any of us should be surprised that his campaign may have engaged in discriminatory practices,” Rauner says.

The Rauner campaign did not respond to a question about the racial makeup of its staff.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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