CHICAGO (AP) - A 7-year-old workplace retaliation lawsuit against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth will remain a campaign issue into the late summer after an Illinois judge said on Thursday that the case could go to trial before the November election.
Union County Judge Mark Boie set a tentative trial date of August and rejected an effort by government lawyers to dismiss the case, which stems from Duckworth's time as head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Illinois Republicans have highlighted the lawsuit, seeking to thwart Duckworth's bid against Sen. Mark Kirk, a first-term moderate in a Democratic-leaning state. Kirk is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators.
"We're looking forward to this politically-motivated case reaching its conclusion after seven years and multiple delays," Duckworth campaign spokesman Matt McGrath said in a statement after the judge's decision.
A group of 20 protesters — primarily college Republicans from Southern University in Edwardsville who traveled together on a charter bus — stood in a steady rain outside the rural courthouse before the hearing, holding signs linking the Democrat to "Chicago corruption" as well as disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
A statement from the Illinois Republican Party after the hearing called Duckworth's tenure as head of the state agency "one plagued by mismanagement and scandal."
Duckworth's campaign against Kirk could have national implications, as Democrats seek a net gain of at least four seats in 2016 to take back the Senate majority Republicans won in 2014.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm during the Iraq War, is being represented by the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
The cased had been dismissed twice before and the state had asked for the same fate again, arguing that Duckworth's efforts to fire 22-year state employee Christine Butler from her administrative job were based solely on "insubordination." Duckworth reversed that decision after being told that she first had to follow written disciplinary procedures and instead issued a reprimand with a paid suspension against Butler.
Human resources secretary Denise Goins alleges that her complaints about her boss were ignored and led to an unfavorable performance review that prevented her from receiving a raise. Goins says Duckworth urged her to "do your job and keep your mouth shut."
Goins and Butler, who both continue to work at a veterans home, also say they were punished for speaking out after Patricia Simms, the acting administrator, allowed unauthorized people to care for a resident. The two state workers are seeking compensation of at least $50,000, as well as other financial penalties.
Assistant Attorney General Deborah Barnes called their assertions "petty complaints by two malcontents." But the judge wasn't swayed, ruling that the dispute deserves a full trial while quoting from Duckworth's apologetic email.
He also rejected an assertion by Duckworth in a sworn statement that attributed her attempt to fire Butler to unfamiliarity with the state agency as well as a reflexive response — in part due to her military training — to the employee becoming "angry and rude.and physically being in my face."
Butler said the suit is an effort to clear her reputation.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with a political fight," she said. "Our names are still being slung through the mud for speaking up."
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This story has been corrected to reflect that judge's first name is Mark instead of David.