By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Balboa Bay Club is the sort of place where the haves mingle with the have-mores. You can moor your yacht and sample the sand dabs with a view of the Newport Beach harbor.
It's also where Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, seems most comfortable meeting with Latinos these days. Last Friday, Whitman addressed a black-tie gathering there of the Hispanic 100, a pro-business political committee. The membership embodies a certain type of immigrant dream: Cross the border. Get rich. Become a Republican.
If Whitman wanted to broach the topic of her undocumented maid, this would be a sympathetic audience. But even after being serenaded by mariachis and knocking back a shot of tequila — or at least appearing to — she was in no mood to discuss Nicandra "Nicky" Diaz Santillan. Instead, she said what she always says in such settings: "I cannot win this election without the Latino vote."
Winning those votes got a bit tougher when Diaz Santillan sat down alongside Gloria Allred to tell the world that Whitman had thrown her away "like garbage."
Until then, in the polls Whitman was tied with Jerry Brown and doing much better than the typical Republican among Latinos and women — two groups that will be essential to victory, and also two groups that also likely would be offended by the housekeeper scandal. Now she's five points behind, according to Rasmussen Reports.
Whitman is trying to turn the page. Her campaign jumped on a recording of a Brown aide referring to her as a "whore," first calling the remark "unforgivable" and then demanding that Brown personally apologize anyway. But two weeks after that first Allred press conference, Whitman has yet to banish Diaz Santillan's shadow from the campaign trail. It showed up in Tuesday's debate, when Tom Brokaw asked her how businesses can screen out illegal immigrants if she couldn't tell that one was working in her own house. It shows up on the campaign trail, when she cites the Latino unemployment rate and says it "breaks my heart, as it breaks yours."
If you've seen Whitman speak, you know that a lot of things break her heart. The state of the K-12 education system. The movie Waiting for Superman. It's kind of a throwaway line. But now you're wondering about the moment when Diaz Santillan asked her employer for help establishing legal residency. Whitman has said she didn't know Diaz Santillan was undocumented, and that when she and her husband decided to fire her, "It broke our hearts."
Before the housekeeper story broke, Whitman had an immigration problem, one that Diaz Santillan's charges underscored and amplified. To win in California, she has to cobble together a center-right coalition that holds flatly contradictory views on immigration. For the conservative base, she has to be "tough as nails," but she also has to reach out to persuadable Latinos, many of whom have undocumented workers in their own families.
That problem is not of Whitman's making, but she has made it worse by contradicting herself. Last year, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that she favored a "path to legalization." When confronted about that in the Republican primary, she said she didn't realize that "legalization" is a "code word for amnesty," which she opposes. She said she meant to say she supports a temporary-worker program.
That program appears nowhere in Whitman's 48-page policy booklet, which she released in March. The one page that addresses immigration (under the heading of "other priorities") sticks exclusively to enforcement measures, such as getting state and local police to undertake workplace raids, and denying undocumented students access to state colleges and universities.
As policy, a temporary-worker program preserves the cognitive dissonance of the status quo: We want you, we don't want you. If you try to apply it to the real world of Diaz Santillan, it falls apart. She worked for Whitman for nine years. There is nothing temporary about that.
Nothing unusual, either. It's not exactly surprising that Whitman employed an undocumented maid. It's common in California. Nevertheless, the situation has the potential to hurt her in all sorts of ways.
First and most obvious, it hurts with Latinos. More than 40 percent of Latinos had yet to decide between Brown and Whitman when the housekeeper story broke, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll. A poll by Latino Decisions showed that among Latinos, the greatest number of undecided were those who had been naturalized within the last 10 years; in other words, the voters who were most on the fence were those most likely to identify with Diaz Santillan.
Whitman's "standing among Latinos was already precarious 14 days ago," Segura says. "This was a disaster for her."
Second, hard-core immigration restrictionists might be expected to abandon Whitman as well. Many such voters already were suspicious of her, and they may well conclude that she must have known Diaz Santillan was illegal. On Election Day, such voters could either stay home or cast a protest ballot for Chelene Nightingale, the American Independent Party candidate who has the backing of such anti-immigration diehards as ex–Rep. Tom Tancredo and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.