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“I can't believe I even survived that job.”
Staffers fleeing Katie Hobbs’ campaign question her ability to lead Arizona.
In the past five months, two-thirds of Democrat Katie Hobbs’ gubernatorial campaign staff have left, and several describe the campaign as an emotionally abusive atmosphere that got so bad, they were forced to upend their lives and plans mid-election and seek employment elsewhere.
The problem isn’t Hobbs herself, the former staffers told us. Instead, it was created by a new campaign manager who was brought in to turn the campaign around following a cycle of poor fundraising and bruising media coverage over Talonya Adams, a Black woman who Hobbs fired from the Senate after she raised issues of pay equity. Adams has won two racial discrimination judgements against the state over her treatment as a member of staff for Senate Democrats when Hobbs was the caucus leader.
During Hobbs’ tenure at the Secretary of State’s Office, there have been no significant staffing issues or charges of it being a toxic workplace. But the management dust-up with Adams represents Hobbs’ greatest liability on the campaign trail. (Adams has since endorsed Marco Lopez in the Democratic primary for governor.)
And Hobbs’ inability or refusal to rein in campaign manager Nicole DeMont, coupled with the candidate’s history of management troubles at the state Senate, call into question Hobbs’ aptitude to lead the state’s workforce, should she be elected to the Governor’s Office, the former staffers say.
“It's unfortunately not a good indicator of Katie's leadership,” one former staffer said. “There are 40,000 employees in this state, and she wasn't even on top of what was going on at her campaign office.”
Since DeMont was hired in March, eight people have left the campaign out of a total of 12 staffers.
We spoke to half of those who left. They all told similar stories about a campaign manager who continuously told them they weren’t working hard enough, or they weren’t cut out for the job, or they weren’t going to make it in this business.
Those who spoke with us did so on background1, some despite signing non-disclosure agreements that bar them from speaking to the press about their experience. They said the stakes are too high, and the problems too great, to stay silent. By coming forward, they are risking their careers, not to mention legal consequences, to speak against a candidate they formerly believed in and mostly still like on a personal and policy level.
The team was initially excited about DeMont coming on, one staffer said, and many of the changes she made helped right a ship that had gone adrift for lack of a permanent campaign manager.
But it was DeMont’s authoritarian style, demeaning comments and paranoia that they were plotting against her that ultimately led to the exodus, the staffer said.
“I welcome tough management — I think a lot of people do,” one former staffer told us. “But what she did wasn’t tough. It was abusive and exploitive.”
The former staffers depict an atmosphere where they were scared to ask for time off for doctors’ appointments. They describe being talked down to and berated for not fulfilling expectations that weren’t effectively communicated and for not being able to stick to plans that were changed on the fly. They say they experienced distrust for the existing staff that translated into intense micromanagement.
Staffers had a running joke that the campaign manager hid a nanny cam in the office to keep an eye on them when she was away. When she would leave the office for lunch, they would breathe a collective sigh of relief, several said.
On several occasions, the deputy campaign manager apologized to the staff for DeMont’s behavior. And the former staffers say that they were so demoralized by the new leadership that employees were helping each other look for new jobs from the office.
They say Hobbs has shown either a lack of awareness about the problem in the face of a massive staff exodus, or a willingness to allow a senior employee to demean and belittle others in order to maintain momentum on her path to the Governor’s Office.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it,” one said. “And I can’t figure out which (scenario) is worse.”
Campaigns are, by their very nature, high-stakes, high-stress, emotionally and physically taxing work environments. They can bring out the best and the worst in people. Flare-ups are constant in a world that is staffed largely by 20-somethings, many of whom lack experience in a “normal” working environment. Campaign staff regularly work more than 50-60 hours per week, sometimes for several weeks at a time without a single day off, and people get burned out.
And campaign managers, generally speaking, are not known for being nice. They’re judged on races won, not friendships made.
But Hobbs’ campaign, post-DeMont’s hiring, was especially bad, the former staffers said.
“A lot of campaigns have this issue, but I don't think anyone's had, not that I've seen or heard of, this many staff leave in such a short amount of time because of one person,” one former staffer said. “It was crazy. There was just this complete mass exodus of staffers leaving.”
The Hobbs campaign wouldn’t make Hobbs or DeMont available for an interview.
“Since joining our team in March, Nicole has built a campaign that will win big on Tuesday and be ready to take on and beat either out-of-touch Republican in November,” campaign adviser Joe Wolf said in a prepared statement. “Campaigns are tough, and turnover — especially leading up to the general election — is common. We appreciate every staffer and volunteer who has given their time to this campaign, and it's thanks to their dedication and hard work that Katie Hobbs will be Arizona’s next governor.”
Mike Haener, a supporter and lobbyist, argued the campaign has been more responsive, and is on better footing, since DeMont took over. Before she was on board, emails he sent to try to connect people with the campaign went into a “black hole,” he said.
“To me, there was a complete failure, from the campaign manager on down,” he said. “And that changed when Nicole got there.”
It’s worth noting that while shakeups and meltdowns are a staple of campaign life, it’s exceedingly rare for former staffers to talk about it. There are incentives to stay silent and risks to speaking out.
But now more than ever, young campaign staffers are demanding healthier workplace environments. And as Democrats struggle to maintain their position as the party that supports workers, their ground troops argue that it’s especially important for campaigns’ actions to reflect those values. Hobbs’ campaign failed that challenge, the former staffers say.
“At press conferences we talk about treating workers with respect,” one former Hobbs staffer said. “At what point are we as the Democratic party going to say enough is enough and actually practice what we preach?”
Some of their complaints are petty, they acknowledge, like the time that DeMont invited everyone out for dinner and drinks and “forced bonding time,” then made the staff pay for their own meals. Or the planned “retreat” that was supposed to be out of town, but ended up being more like an after-hours lecture at the office. But those small things added up, and eventually broke down the feeling of camaraderie that holds a campaign together.
The former staffers we spoke to all say they still want Hobbs to win in November, given the alternative. But several said they wouldn’t personally vote for her after their experiences on her campaign, and they’re not convinced she deserves to win.
“People who are going to vote for Katie deserve to know what kind of leadership she's going to bring,” one said. “And even if it's not her, it’s the people that she has continuously chosen to surround herself with and chosen to lead her teams.”
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“On background” is an agreement between a reporter and a source to not identify the source by name or use details about their experiences that would give away their identities. We agreed to talk on background because of the risks to the staffers for speaking out, and because the public deserves to hear their story. If you want to discuss a sensitive topic on background, reach out! But read that link first.