PHOENIX — A former African-American policy adviser to the state Senate's Democrats will get her old job back, along with more than $350,000 in damages, after a jury decided her firing was the result of racial and sexual discrimination.
Talonya Adams has until Oct. 31 to negotiate a job agreement with Senate Democrats, under an order filed late Thursday by Federal Judge Douglas Rayes.
"I feel deep gratitude and a lot of pride," Adams said in an interview Friday.
"That's my job, that's my livelihood. My job at the Arizona state Senate was a job that I loved."
Adams wants to be reinstated at a position and pay scale matching her experience and education.
Salaries for Senate Democrats' advisers with Adams' experience start at about $100,000, according to court documents.
The case's outcome is remarkable and rare: Adams won while acting as her own attorney and star witness in her first case in Federal Court.
Adams filed her civil rights lawsuit against the Arizona Senate. No individual staffers or senators were named, so the jury and judge didn't assign culpability to any of Adams' supervisors.
Before her firing in 2015, Adams worked for then-Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, now the secretary of state, and Chief of Staff Jeff Winkler. Both were part of the group that agreed to fire Adams and were called as witnesses during her trial.
"It's because I was African-American that I was dismissed," Adams said. "I also think it was in retaliation for requesting a raise.
"When it comes to women and women of color in particular, there is an issue there as it relates to Katie Hobbs... To the extent that she believes discrimination does not exist or that she's not able to see it, I have grave concerns in the role that she currently sits."
Who discriminated against Adams?
According to the Arizona Republic, Adams raised questions during the trial about Hobbs' ability to trust Black women.
At a mid-August hearing, the top Republican Senate staffer, Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, claimed she didn't discriminate against Adams.
When asked by Adams, "Who discriminated?" Baldo pointed a finger at Hobbs.
As chief of staff for the Senate's Republican majority, Baldo oversees the chamber's operations, including hirings and firings.
When I spoke to Hobbs after the August hearing, she said no one discriminated against Adams.
"I don't know why (Baldo) said that. It is not true," Hobbs said in the late August interview. "Discrimination didn't happen."
"It's really unfortunate that she's refusing to take responsibility for her part... Wendy was involved every step of the way when the decision was made."
But in a statement to 12News late Friday, Hobbs apologized to Adams:
"The fight for equality is something I think about every day. I have long recognized the inequities that women and people of color face, and because of that I should have been a stronger ally in this instance. I apologize to Ms. Adams."
Adams told me Hobbs had not contacted her.
Adams' case against Senate
The former policy adviser for Senate Democrats argued:
- She was paid $60,000 a year when she was hired and never got a raise.
- Her male counterparts were paid more and got raises
- Her workload was heavier than other staffers for the same job.
- Her firing in 2015 was in retaliation for complaining about discrimination.
What Baldo said
Baldo's finger-pointing came under questioning by Adams, who wanted to know whether the jury's finding of discrimination had made an impact on the Senate.
Baldo testified that the Senate leadership had not taken any action with employees in response to the jury verdict at the end of August.
Adams asked her three times whether she agreed with the jury that there was discrimination.
Baldo dodged the question until the judge directed her to answer.
Baldo said she "came to believe after the trial" that there was discrimination.
Adams: Based on race?
Baldo: I don't believe so.
Adams: Based on sex?
Adams: Was there retaliation?
Baldo: I don't believe so.
Then Baldo pointed fingers:
Baldo: I did not retaliate or discriminate.
Adams: Who did?
Baldo: Minority leadership ... Katie Hobbs and her chief of staff.
What's next for Adams
If she returns to the Capitol, Adams would be working for two people she singled out during her trial - Baldo and Winkler.
A spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus said: "The judge's order requires terms of Adams' reinstatement be finalized by Oct. 31. Those terms are still being negotiated, so we cannot comment."
Senate President Karen Fann told the Arizona Capitol Times that Adams' reinstatement would be "awkward," given Adams' allegations against her supervisors.
"If that's what she wants to do and that's what we need to do, fine," Fann told the Capitol Times. "But if there's another alternative, that's OK, too."