Out here on the West Coast for a visit to member station KPCC, it is impossible to escape the fallout of the situation between California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) and her former housekeeper, whom Whitman fired in 2009 after she discovered that she was in the country illegally. Whitman fired the woman, who had been employed by her family for nine years, after learning of her status.
It's all anyone is talking about.
The revelation came on Thursday, at a press conference held by activist Gloria Allred, where she trotted out the woman, Nicandra ("Nicky") Diaz Santillan — and two days before Whitman and her Democratic opponent, state Attorney General (and ex-Gov.) Jerry Brown, squared off to debate in Fresno and broadcast on Univision, where the questions were delivered in Spanish and later translated. Latinos make up about 20 percent of the California electorate, and Whitman has plainly stated that she can't win without substantial Hispanic support.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll indicates that Hispanic voters are supporting the Democratic candidates for governor as well as for the Senate, where incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer is seeking a fourth term. According to the poll, Latino support for Boxer is much greater than it is for Brown.
And that's why many in the Whitman camp are questioning the timing of the news about the housekeeper, noting that it came just days before Whitman was expected to make an impassioned plea for Latino support during the debate. Republicans are blaming Brown and the Democrats for the late-breaking news. During an especially impassioned part of the debate, Whitman charged, "Jerry, you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there. You should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions."
But Whitman has said from the beginning of her campaign that employers should be held accountable for the status of whom they employ, and Brown gave it right back. "Don't run for governor if you can't stand up on your own two feet and say, 'Hey, I made a mistake, I'm sorry, let's go on from here,' " he said. "You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions, but you don't take accountability."
There is a $19 billion budget deficit here, schools are in trouble, and many feel government simply does not work. On the one hand, it seems that focusing on Whitman's nanny problems is typical for politicians who would rather talk about anything other than the real problems. But at the same time, immigration is an extremely hot button issue in California, and for many people this race hits home.
Polls continue to show the race for governor to be extremely close. Whitman has spent a record $119 million, most out of her own pocket. Brown has raised, and spent, much less, though he does have the unions out on his behalf. As of now, there is no indication that the debate, as personal and scathing as it was, moved many numbers. A new Rasmussen survey, released today, has Brown up 49-44 percent — still within the margin of error.
Last Wednesday, before the controversy broke, a Public Policy Institute of California survey had Whitman up by a 38-37 percent margin.
But the flap may prove to be a lost opportunity for Whitman, who clearly did not want to sit there for much of an hour and talk about her past. As the Los Angeles Times' George Skelton wrote today in a scathing appraisal of Whitman's performance, "How much is all this hurting Whitman? Unknown. But even a little could be a lot in a tight race."
By the way, one cannot turn on the TV here for a few minutes without coming across a torrent of negative ads for both the gubernatorial and Senate races. It just doesn't stop. We keep hearing that negative ads work, and maybe they do. But it does get a bit weary after awhile.