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Fernando Espuelas

Fernando Espuelas

Posted: September 30, 2010 12:32 PM

Meg Whitman's Big Fat Latino Problem

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California was set abuzz this week as Meg Whitman, the self-proclaimed "tough as nails" anti-illegal immigration candidate for California Governor, was confronted with her own undocumented maid problem.

While the timing of the nanny-gate disclosure is suspicious at best - coming just a few weeks before a very tight, heavily-fought race against Jerry Brown to become the next Governor - the revelation that Whitman employed an undocumented alien, Nicky Diaz, for 9 years could prove devastating to her campaign.

While Whitman has denied knowing that the nanny was using her sister's green-card to pass as a legal resident, the particulars of what did she know and when did she know it is not in itself the main issue.

Whatever the factual basis of this case, Whitman's nanny black-eye was self-inflicted.

A little background may be needed for those not following the California Governor's race. While on the Democratic side Attorney General Jerry Brown was basically crowned by the party and Democratic loyalists, Whitman had a very tough primary campaign.

While she brandished her almost unlimited capacity to self-finance a campaign - Whitman is a dot-com billionaire - to try to clear the Republican field, she could not scare-off Steve Poizner, the California Insurance Commissioner and also a fabulously wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Fighting for the Republican nomination in California is a tough game. The GOP was reduced to its right-wing core after former Governor Pete Wilson's disastrous anti-Latino Proposition 187 - which sought to deny basic services from the undocumented, including public school for kids.

Millions of formerly passive, non-voting Americans of Latino descent registered en masse, and have since become a reliable Democratic voting block. Making up some 36% of California's population (and about 50% of Los Angeles County), Latinos are now the state's king makers.

Winning the Republican nomination, therefore, requires an appeal to the Wilson Republican core - an appeal that Poizner strategically focused to paint Whitman as some kind of closet liberal. Poizner's first state-wide television spot actually accused the undocumented community of causing California's massive fiscal mess (a risible claim not supported by any data whatsoever).

Poizner made it clear that he would focus on rooting out "illegals" while Whitman would not. Poizner sought to paint Whitman as soft on immigration - even claiming that she supported President Barack Obama's comprehensive immigration reform push.

And here the story gets tricky. Poizner's anti-Latino attacks resonated with the Republican base. The polls, which at one point had Whitman some 40 points ahead of Poizner, began to tighten. The Whitman campaign responded with a massive buy of ads that assured the base that she would be "tough as nails" with undocumented immigrants.

She promised an end to "sanctuary cities" and to block admission to state universities to the kids of the undocumented. Crowning this anti-immigrant stance, Whitman had former Governor Pete Wilson (an icon to both the GOP base and Latino voters alike, although for different and opposing reasons) voice the radio spots.

Deploying her considerable financial advantage (Whitman is estimated to have spent about $110 million of her own money by the end of the primary season), she overwhelmed Poizner. Whitman was successful in positioning herself as the natural heir of Pete Wilson, whose endorsement in the radio spots gave her anti-immigrant bona fides for the Republican core.

Whitman crushed Poizner in the primary.

But then the 21st century intruded. Back in olden times, say the early 1990's, a time of linear media and a small clutch of manageable news outlets, candidates routinely pivoted right (in GOP primaries) and left (in Democratic primaries) knowing that for the general election they could slide towards the center to build the winning coalition of their own party faithful, plus independents and a sprinkling of disaffected voters from the other party.

But in our era of ubiquitous media - and permanent media accessible 24/7 though a simple Google search - the positions taken during the primary can be resurrected instantaneously by your opponents to shine a light on the pivot and slide maneuver and show the hypocrisy of politicians willing to say anything, to any group, in order to get their vote.

After Poizner was vanquished, Whitman immediately went live with a set of Spanish-language commercials meant to reassure Latinos that she loved everything, really everything about Hispanics. She even likes our food, she said in her commercials.

But what about her "tough as nails" mantra? Guess what, Latinos heard her message and it indeed sounded like Whitman was Pete Wilson's heir.

So how does this nanny moment play into the election? The legal issues raised by Nicky Diaz are not Whitman's real problem. Whatever the merits of the case now being litigated in the media by suffering victim specialist attorney Gloria Allred, the optics of this issue are horrible, and possibly fatal for Whitman's candidacy.

With her base, the GOP faithful that rabidly believes in Pete Wilson's vision of punishing the undocumented, Whitman's commiseration with Diaz over 9 years betrays, again, a certain hypocrisy. For a crowd that is fond of claiming that there are American citizens willing and able to replace the immigrants nannies, grape pickers and meat packers, Whitman has shown how dependent our country is on immigrant labor.

Those Republican voters will never vote for Jerry Brown, of course. But they may not vote at all. This is a rabid crowd - as Poizner proved when he threw red immigrant meat at them - and ideological purity counts.

Whitman's major, major problem, however, is with Latino voters. The nanny-gate story broke like a wild-fire through the Latino community. Already suspicious of Whitman for her Pete Wilson connection and red hot anti-immigrant rhetoric during the primary, the case of the undocumented nanny hidden in the shadows as the billionaire spends her way to the Governor's office has provoked widespread derision among Latinos.

Earlier this week, in her first debate with Jerry Brown, Whitman once again appealed to her base on the immigration issue. She said that she did not favor a path towards legalization of undocumented people (even though the Graham-Schumer bill stuck in the Senate provides such a path). She further reiterated her position on ending "sanctuary cities" - code for deportations.

In short, she reassured the GOP faithful while simultaneously reminding Latinos of Whitman's uncanny Pete Wilson imitation.

On November 2 don't be surprised if Latinos send their own message - politicians who run on anti-Hispanic campaigns will lose.

 

Follow Fernando Espuelas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fespuelas