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Meg Whitman on Immigration: From New and Exciting to Mean and Typical

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Today's Los Angeles Times reports:

"Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has reignited a controversy that roiled her campaign for weeks, saying the undocumented housekeeper she employed for nine years should be deported....The deportation remark represents the kind of hard-line stance that Whitman sought to avoid for most of the campaign."

Deport a woman who cared for your children and took care of your house for nine years? A woman who you once described as a "member of our extended family?"

So much for Meg Whitman being a new kind of Republican on immigration. So much for Meg Whitman being the next governor of California.

There was such promise when she began her campaign. She was to be the candidate who was going to reposition the California Republican Party to once again become competitive with the one in five voters in the state who are Latino. She surrounded herself with former Bush consultants and developed a strategy to run a general-election-style race in the primary. The plan was to withstand the pressure from her right-wing challenger to get the GOP nomination, and, like George W. Bush, go on to win at least 40% of the Latino vote by showing that she was on a new kind of Republican on immigration.

If the strategy had worked, it would have been a huge story. A Republican woman wins in blue state California by attracting a healthy percentage of Latino votes. It would have immediately put her on the short list for a future run at national office. Now, according to the most recent Field Poll, Whitman trails by 10% overall, and by 30% -- a margin of 57% - 27% -- among Latino voters.

Back in the fall of 2009, before her primary heated up, her general election strategy was on full display. At an October campaign stop in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border, Whitman called for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, asking her audience: "Can we get a fair program where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine, they do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization?"

In November of 2009, standing in front of an audience of Latino supporters at a campaign appearance in South El Monte, Whitman apologized on behalf of the Republican Party for Proposition 187 - the anti-immigrant ballot initiative championed by former Governor Pete Wilson that galvanized Latinos to become citizens and Democrats in record numbers. She said, "I think it has had an overhang on the Republican Party and I am sorry about that. We need to move beyond that."

Then things heated up. In the spring of 2010 her GOP challenger Steve Poizner tried to outflank her on the right by making illegal immigration the issue of the primary. Instead of hanging tough, Whitman changed her tune. Actually, she began singing a whole different song. She rolled out former Governor Pete Wilson as her spokesperson on immigration. She ran ads stating that her position on illegal immigration was "crystal clear," that she opposed "amnesty" and "benefits" such as being able to attend public universities. Wilson, widely despised by Latinos in California for vilifying the community in order to pass Proposition 187 and win re-election as Governor, promised that "Meg will be tough as nails on illegal immigration."

Having given up so much ground in the primary, she then tried to have it both ways on the Arizona "papers please" law. In English, she said "I would let the Arizona law stand for Arizona. [...] My view is you gotta let the states do what they gotta do until the federal government proves they can secure these borders." In Spanish, her ads said "She respects our community. She's the Republican who opposes the Arizona law, and she opposed Proposition 187." Evidently, she and her campaign did not understand that Latino voters are bilingual, intelligent and, like most voters, turned off by rank hypocrisy.

But in September of this year the wheels really came off. In their first debate, Jerry Brown leaned into the immigration issue by stating his unequivocal support of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, while Whitman came out clearly in opposition to "a path to legalization" for undocumented immigrants. Then, news broke that she had employed an undocumented worker from Mexico named Nicky Diaz for nine years.

While the mainstream media focused on whether or not Whitman broke the law, the Latino immigrant community and Spanish language media focused on how Whitman broke faith with someone so close to the family. According to Ms. Diaz, Meg Whitman said to Ms. Diaz upon firing her: "I cannot help you. And don't say anything to my children. I will tell them you already have a new job ... and from now on you don't know me, and I don't know you. You have never seen me, and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?"

The final coup de grace was Meg Whitman calling for Ms. Diaz's deportation the last week of the campaign.

For those of us working towards a bipartisan breakthrough to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, the prospect of a pro-immigrant Republican competing for the California governorship was a hopeful sign. But much like her party has done in recent years, she lurched right under pressure from the right. Her attempts to move to the center left her looking like a hypocrite. And the fact that she threw a beloved employee under the bus for the sake of her political ambitions was the final nail in the coffin.

Could it have been different? What would have happened if she stood up during the primary and challenged Republican voters, many of whom support comprehensive immigration reform, to nominate someone who could win, someone with positions that would attract Latino votes? What would have happened if she had hired the best lawyers around to help Nicky Diaz get legal status rather than fire her? What might have been if she had campaigned on the basis of convictions rather than fears?

With respect to Meg Whitman's candidacy, we'll never know. In her place, it seems that the right's standard-bearers on immigration this election cycle might turn out to be Sharron Angle, with her Willie Horton-style anti-immigrant ads; John McCain stating it's time to "build the danged fence," and Tom Tancredo railing about illusory "sanctuary cities."

Meg, we hardly knew you.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and America's Voice

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