SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The airwaves in California have been dominated by images of a teary immigrant housekeeper claiming she was mistreated by her billionaire employer and turned away when she asked for citizenship help.
It's far from the message Republican Meg Whitman wants to send to the state's crucial Latino voting bloc as she runs for governor.
Whitman is accused of knowingly having the illegal immigrant housekeeper from Mexico on her payroll for several years in a revelation that has throttled her campaign just as she prepares for a Spanish-language debate Saturday against Democratic opponent Jerry Brown. She needs Latino voters to win in Democratic-leaning California.
Whitman has sought to cast the story in a positive way – careful not to demonize the housekeeper while calling her an extended member of the family. Whitman noted how she and her husband paid her the usual $23-an-hour fee even when they were away on vacation and said the woman is being manipulated by Democratic operatives connected to the campaign of Brown.
Even so, the image of a tough-on-immigration gubernatorial candidate getting ensnared in a messy controversy over the legality of her household help is not helpful to a Republican trying to attract the Hispanic vote.
The narrative of a Hispanic maid feeling she was mistreated by her wealthy employer is a personal one for many in the Hispanic community, and such a scenario playing out in a campaign could hurt Whitman, some experts say.
"The message she sent is a distant, patronizing figure who is willing to use immigrants but doesn't understand their plight," said Louis DeSipio, chairman of Chicano-Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. "To the extent Meg Whitman did reach out to Latinos, she's probably lost that initiative."
Whitman addressed the controversy head-on during a news conference Thursday in Santa Monica and will get another chance Saturday when she and Brown meet in their second debate in Fresno. This one is sponsored by Univision and is targeted toward a Hispanic audience.
At the same time, the controversy also could risk Whitman's support among two other key voting blocs: independent voters, who comprise about 20 percent of the electorate, and conservatives, who might question why Whitman didn't report her housekeeper to federal immigration authorities when she acknowledged being in the country illegally in June 2009.
Nancy Bolanos, a 31-year-old medical biller in Fresno, is a registered Democrat who said and she's getting annoyed by the governor's race because it's getting "dirty." She said Whitman's stance on immigration has turned her off on the candidate.
"I was leaning towards Meg Whitman until the whole immigration thing came on," Bolanos said.
Katia Castro, who immigrated from Costa Rica 20 years ago, said while she liked Whitman's image overall, she found the revelation about her housekeeper "disgusting."
"Me being a Latina and an immigrant, I guess I'm biased," said Castro, 45, a registered Democrat from Fresno. "But if she was against illegal immigration and she had an illegal immigrant working for her, that's hypocritical."
The allegations have dominated the governor's race since Nicky Diaz Santillan came forward this week with accusations that Whitman and her husband should have known for years she was an illegal immigrant.
Whitman said she only realized the worker was illegal last year – and she promptly fired her.
Her attorney, Gloria Allred of Los Angeles, said she will file a claim against Whitman for unpaid back wages and mileage. Whitman says she will vigorously defend against any such claim.
At the heart of the controversy is a 2003 document from the Social Security Administration alerting the Whitman household to discrepancies with the maid's Social Security number, saying it did not match the name on file. Allred produced the letter with what appeared to be handwriting from Whitman's husband, a Stanford neurosurgeon, suggesting that at least he was tipped off to questions about Diaz Santillan's status.
Whitman has responded with compassion for her former maid, whom she described as an extended member of her family, while also trying to preserve her campaign pledge to be tough on immigration enforcement. The former chief executive of eBay says it broke her heart when she fired her maid, she was obligated to do so under federal law.
When asked why she didn't offer to help the woman, Whitman said she felt she had to do what was right at the time. She said it would be up to federal immigration authorities to decide whether to start deportation proceedings against Diaz Santillan. Whitman's campaign said Diaz Santillan acknowledged using some of her sister's records when she signed an immigration document and submitted a driver's license and Social Security card.
Hispanics are a growing part of California's population, accounting for roughly 37 percent of the state's 38.6 million people. While many are not U.S. citizens or have never registered to vote, Hispanics are projected to make up 15 percent of voters in the Nov. 2 general election, according to a recent Field Poll.
A growing number of those voters are relatively new naturalized citizens who don't have any allegiance to a political party, representing a key opportunity for the Republican Party, said Harry Pachon, president of The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.
Whitman has aggressively courted Hispanics with Spanish-language radio and television ads, including spots during 15 games of the World Cup. She opened offices in the predominantly Hispanic areas, and has held a number of campaign events with Hispanic leaders.
Much of her outreach has focused on job-creation and improving public schools, top issues in the Hispanic community that up until now have overshadowed her views on immigration.
Whitman has said she does not favor a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people estimated to be in the country illegally. Instead, she advocates for tighter border security and an expanded guest-worker program.
Whitman has tried to refocus the campaign since the controversy erupted on Wednesday, saying voters care more about the state's high unemployment rate and failing schools. She also has sought to divert negative attention to Brown, whom she accused of being behind efforts to manipulate her former housekeeper.
Allred, the attorney, is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates.
"I think Latinos are really smart," Whitman told reporters Thursday. "I think they will see this for exactly what it is, which is one giant political stunt and smear campaign by a desperate Brown campaign. Thirty days out, this is so obvious what is going on."
The Brown campaign and his labor-backed allies have denied any involvement.
In an effort at damage control, Whitman's campaign launched an immediate response to counter Diaz Santillan's allegations, dispatching Spanish-speaking surrogates to explain Whitman's side of the story. One of their key points: Diaz Santillan was hardly mistreated when she worked just 15 hours a week for the Whitman family and was paid $23 an hour.
"Most of the discussion now is what is going to happen to this woman and her family," said Whitman Spanish media spokesman Hector Barajas. "Is she being used? Did they force her, knowing she was undocumented, to testify?"
One of the state's largest public employee unions intends to keep the incident fresh in voters' minds as part of a $5 million Spanish-language media campaign starting Saturday. It accuses Whitman of saying one thing in her Spanish-language campaign ads and another when she speaks in English.
"I think they're going to see what's happened to their grandmothers, their mothers, their sisters," Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said of Latino voters. "They get hired by rich people, get exploited and they put up with it in the hope that it will lead to help legalizing their status. Finally, when they ask for help, they find themselves fired and put on the street."
Associated Press Writer Garance Burke contributed to this report from Fresno.