Meg Whitman wanted to portray a new Republican face to Latino voters. Then controversy erupted over the undocumented maid she fired, marring her outreach in the California governor race.
Whitman, 54, EBay Inc.’s former chief executive officer, has faced $5 million in ad spending by labor allies of Democrat Jerry Brown, 72, in the final weeks before Nov. 2. A contest that had been too close to call shifted to a 48 percent to 42 percent lead for Brown, the attorney general and former two-term governor, a Rasmussen Reports poll released Oct. 23 showed.
“She tries to be tough on undocumented people, then all of the sudden she has a work relationship with an undocumented,” Henrik Rehbinder, editorial page editor of La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language U.S. newspaper, said in a telephone interview. “It could damage her with some Latino voters.”
Whitman’s own polling showed she “took a hit,” said spokesman Hector Barajas, one of six Hispanics in senior staff positions on her team. She trailed Brown by 20 points among Latinos, according to an Oct. 22 campaign memo. Surveys by Field Research Corp. and the Public Policy Institute of California showed her deficit last month was in the single digits.
Latinos account for 18 percent of likely voters, according to the institute. This season, they may be motivated by neighboring Arizona’s passage of an anti-immigration law, said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Before a court blocked the provision, the Tea Party-backed statute required police officers to determine the immigration status of people they questioned.
‘Lifelong Voting Patterns’
Latinos make up a key voting group in California, in part because of their relative youth, said Mark Baldassare, CEO of the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute.
“Lifelong voting patterns haven’t been established yet,” Baldassare said, “so the candidates feel there’s a chance to get their support.”
Another important bloc, independents, represent 20 percent of likely voters, according to the research firm. There are about 17 million registered voters in the state, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 million.
While two-thirds of likely Latino voters are Democrats, a two-thirds proportion also identifies as middle-of-the-road or conservative, institute data show. That allows Republicans and Whitman to counter the smaller GOP registration with values appeals, said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field polls, who is based in San Francisco.
“She has a lot of capability with that segment that other Republicans haven’t had,” DiCamillo said. Whitman trailed Brown by an average 9 points among Latinos in two recent Field polls.
Brown has a 10 percentage-point lead over Whitman, according to a Field Poll released today that gave the Democrat 49 percent to the Republican’s 39 percent. A month earlier, they were tied at 41 percent each. Brown picked up support among Latinos, women, nonpartisans and voters in Los Angeles County, home to more than a quarter of California’s population.
Whitman spent $4.5 million on Spanish-language ads through September, opened field offices in Democratic strongholds and visited agricultural Central Valley cities, such as Fresno, with large Hispanic communities.
Since the undocumented housekeeper story broke Sept. 29, Whitman has increased her spending by about 40 percent. The media budget was intended to go up in the final month, and no ads specifically mention the maid, Barajas said. Prior to the flap, spots on Univision Communications Inc.’s Univision network and General Electric Co.’s Telemundo featured Latino business supporters, talk about jobs and schools and praise for Latino contributions to economy and culture.
Organized labor will continue to keep the housekeeper in the forefront, said Mary Gutierrez, the California communications director of the Service Employees International Union, who is based in Los Angeles. Spanish-language ads will aim to define the Republican’s “value system,” she said.
“An average person would have said, ‘You’ve been in our home, you’ve helped care for the children, how do we try to fix the situation,’ instead of firing her,” Gutierrez said. “Whitman’s whole mentality is, ‘I’m above the rules.’”
Whitman denied claims by Nicky Diaz Santillan, 39, who said she was emotionally abused during nine years of employment, and called the allegations a “political stunt” orchestrated by Brown supporter Gloria Allred, Diaz Santillan’s Los Angeles-based lawyer.
Employers should be held accountable for hiring undocumented workers, Whitman says on her campaign website. The Republican said she fired Diaz Santillan last year after the housekeeper admitted her illegal status. She gave a fake Social Security number and California driver’s license to an employment agency that referred her to Whitman, according to the campaign.
Among Hispanics, there isn’t a unified view of the controversy, said Rehbinder, the La Opinion editor. The Los Angeles-based newspaper received more letters critical of Diaz Santillan than supportive, some calling her ungrateful and willing to be manipulated for political purposes. That doesn’t mean the letter-writers will vote for Whitman, Rehbinder said.
Appealing to Moderates
Nick Ramirez, 50, a Democrat, said he remains undecided.
“Even though what the lady running for governor did was wrong, I’m still open,” Ramirez, a self-employed housing contractor from Alameda, said in a telephone interview. “I just want to see somebody do something for the people. They need to concentrate on the people and stop slandering each other.”
Whitman needs about a third of Latinos, and more than half of independents, to become the state’s first female governor, according to Baldassare. Republicans including former President George W. Bush and current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used similar formulas to get elected, he said.
“Republicans can win statewide when they appeal to moderates,” said Jacobson, the University of California professor. “They have to come across as socially moderate or liberal, even though they can be economically conservative.”
Whitman won’t get the support of Carlos Guerrero, 41, an associate professor of Chicano studies at Los Angeles City College and a Democrat.
“California depends on people like Nicky to move the economy,” Guerrero said. “Once she wasn’t needed, she got left out in the cold.”
Republicans standing for president and statewide offices have lost among California Latinos by an average 46 points since 1994, according to DiCamillo of the Field polls. That was the year the GOP supported Proposition 187, which denied state services to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
A “callous” image stuck to the party after the measure was approved and Pete Wilson, a U.S. senator who campaigned on the issue, was elected governor, said Armando Arenas, 46.
Arenas is a Republican and co-owner of the La Costa restaurant in East Los Angeles, where Whitman shot footage used in her Spanish ads. His parents emigrated from Durango, Mexico, raised three children, learned English and found work in restaurants “without training wheels,” he said.
The Proposition 187 backlash showed that “you can’t be insensitive to the Hispanic community,” he said.
Wilson is Whitman’s campaign chairman.
“Whitman is trying to tread a fine line between not offending conservative Republicans, who are highly in favor of Arizona-style action, and Latinos, who are not happy with it,” Jacobson said.
Union ads focusing on Wilson’s role may not have much sway, according to Arenas, who believes the maid controversy has blown over by now.
“Anytime you have negative news, initially it will cause an emotional charge,” Arenas said. “I don’t hear people bashing her. People are looking at who’s going to create jobs and get the economy moving.”