09.30.10

Meg Whitman's Latino Trouble

The California governor candidate hit back hard against charges she bilked a Hispanic housekeeper. But the episode could damage her with Latino voters—a crucial bloc already inflamed over the nation's immigration wars.

It was a teary press conference: The housekeeper recounted how she’d asked her billionaire employer for help. But instead of helping her, the woman said, her well-known boss—a successful businesswoman and politician with aspirations—fired her, and cheated her out of owed wages.

But the presence of Gloria Allred at the housekeeper’s side, as the cameras rolled on Wednesday afternoon, suggested to some that the gubernatorial race in California is down to the wire, and now getting dirty.

Faced with the allegation that Meg Whitman had hired an undocumented worker and then fired her when she came for help with her legal status, the Republican candidate’s camp hit back hard, suggesting this wasn’t really a labor dispute but instead a political smear campaign, and that Democrats hired private investigators to find the housekeeper. Brown’s campaign said they had nothing to do with the press conference, and Allred said the housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, had been referred to her through another attorney.

Santillan worked for Whitman for nine years, before she said, she was thrown away “like a piece of garbage.”

The story of the fired housekeeper may hurt GOP candidate Meg Whitman among Latino voters, and in a state where, during the past three decades, registered Latino voters have tripled to 21 percent of the electorate as white voters have declined from 83 percent to 65 percent, the Latino vote might determine this election.

Historically, Democrats in the state have had a lock on the Latino vote, and until now Brown has enjoyed more support among Latinos, who, according to the Los Angeles Times this week, back Brown by 19 points over Whitman.

The Whitman camp hit back hard, suggesting that the press conference wasn’t a bona fide labor dispute but instead a dirty trick played by the Democrats

But Whitman has tried to change that, unveiling a jobs plan specifically targeting Hispanic communities, and aggressively advertising on Spanish-language television, to draw attention to her opposition to the new, controversial immigration law in Arizona—efforts that may all be for naught, if the housekeeper story catches on in those communities.

“It’s an absolute travesty that the Democratic Party, and Jerry Brown, would try to exploit Nicky Diaz and her family—now the entire world knows she is an undocumented immigrant,” bristled Hector Barajas, Whitman’s spokesman, after the press conference. (The campaign also said that Whitman had no idea her housekeeper was an undocumented immigrant because she was hired through an agency and used her sister’s social security number.)

A statement from the opposing camp quickly followed, suggesting that Whitman, the former eBay CEO, was being a hypocrite. And more.

“Once again, Meg Whitman has shown that she thinks the rules don't apply to her. After more than a year of Whitman demanding immigration policy that ‘holds employers accountable,’ we learn that accountability doesn't extend to her own actions,” the statement said. “From the start, Meg Whitman has failed to tell Californians the truth—about her voting record, her positions on climate change, her history of conflict with staffers, or about Jerry Brown. California deserves a governor who tells the truth.”

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Antonio Gonzalez, president of the non-partisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said he believed that the housekeeper’s story might do some damage to the Whitman campaign. “I think it will hurt Meg Whitman because Latinos are sensitive to this issue,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not about the law, it’s about humanity, respect, and human rights.”

Gonzalez said his advice to Whitman would be to quickly back a moderate immigration measure, which could help dilute the news turning something potentially fatal into a story that quickly goes away.

His advice to Brown: put out a Spanish language ad pressing the message that Whitman doesn’t care about Latinos, something that could push the votes Whitman has in the community and galvanize support towards Brown.

Hispanic groups have criticized the hard-line stance Whitman took against immigration in her primary fight against businessman Steve Poizner when her campaign co-chair Pete Wilson appeared in an ad saying Whitman would be “tough as nails” on immigration. She has since softened her stance, and called for raids on employers who hire illegal immigrants and mistreat them, drawing criticism that she has tried to “have it both ways,” as Gonzalez put it.

Nativo Lopez, the president of the Mexican American Political Association, also a non-partisan group that does endorse candidates, but has not in this race, agreed with Gonzales that the housekeeper story might hurt Whitman.

“It was clearly another example of someone wealthy using undocumented labor and when the person asked for assistance to legalize her status that person is let go.” Lopez said, “Brown will use it, the Democratic Party will use it, the union will use it and they should because that’s a foible that should not be left untouched.”

California Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio urged Brown to not think he has the Hispanic vote locked up, even with this news.

“He’s got to go out and make a strong closing case,” said Maviglio “No Democrat should take the Latino vote for granted especially when they are spending that kind of money and effort to woo it.”

The race between Whitman and Brown remains tight. The latest CNN/Time poll puts Brown over Whitman 52 percent to 43 percent. But a recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll suggests the race is even closer with Brown ahead by only five points.

In an interview, Brown campaign spokesman, Clifford Sterling, said they weren’t worried about losing traction with the Latino vote.

“The fact is Jerry has an enormous lead with Latino voters,” Clifford said. “The race is generally either tied or leading for Jerry Brown so I’m not terribly concerned how another jobs plan is having on Latino voters.”

According to a poll done by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan group, put out this month Latinos represent 33 percent of the state’s adult population, but only 18 percent are likely voters or 34 percent of Latino adults. They explain part of that is because many of the 33 percent are undocumented. In contrast, whites represent 46 percent of the population and make up 66 percent of the state’s likely voters.

In addition to advertising her jobs plan, Whitman has made a point of expressing her opposition to Proposition 187, a highly unpopular ballot measure from 1994, which would have denied taxpayer-financed services like health care and public school to undocumented immigrants, even though Wilson, her co-chair and the former California Governor, originally pushed that measure.

And some say, Whitman’s numbers among Latinos suggests that she, as a Republican, enjoys better-than-average support.

“If you lose by 20 points, and you are a Republican, that’s winning (the Latino vote), “ said Gonzalez, who believes Whitman’s jobs message is reaching Hispanic voters, “Frankly she shouldn’t be tied with Brown. He should be running away. He’s an icon. It should be a wipe out.”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.