Will Meg Whitman's illegal maid hurt her with California Latinos?

Latinos are 19 percent of California voters. The flap over Nicky Diaz Santillan, GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's former housekeeper, could make a difference in how they vote.

By , Staff writer

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    California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman listens to a question from reporters during a news conference in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday.
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It has not been a good week for Meg Whitman.

The Republican candidate for governor of California is still having to answer questions about when she and her husband might have known that the Mexican housekeeper they hired for years was in the United States illegally.

That’s cost Whitman precious time when she’d rather be staying on message in her neck-and-neck race against California Attorney General and former governor Jerry Brown.

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Although she’s never held public office, the former eBay CEO has shown herself to be a political fighter, and the billionaire businesswoman has the campaign war chest to hold her own between now and the election one month from now.

But can she do it with Latinos, who comprise 19 percent of California voters? Will the flap over Nicky Diaz Santillan, the housekeeper Whitman fired, make any difference with this important part of the electorate?

Saturday she’s getting the chance to find out as she and Brown debate in California’s central valley, home to much of the state’s Latino population. The debate will be aired on the Spanish-language Univision network.

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A USC College/Los Angeles Times Poll last weekend showed Brown ahead of Whitman 55-35 percent among Latinos likely to vote.

Most Latinos traditionally vote for Democrats in California, so Whitman’s 35 percent is not bad – just short of what political analysts say she needs to beat Brown. (That’s far better than Carly Fiorina is doing against Barbara Boxer among Latinos in California’s US Senate race.) Whitman is particularly attractive to Latino business owners, and many Latino Californians vigorously oppose illegal immigration.

Whitman insists that she fired her housekeeper as soon as she learned of Diaz Santillan’s illegal status. But Whitman’s husband says "it was possible" he saw a letter from the Social Security Administration in 2003 letter questioning Diaz Santillan’s Social Security number.

How will the housekeeper controversy play here? Whitman is taking no chances.

The Los Angeles Times reports that her campaign has doubled its advertising on Spanish-language radio and increased the number of its Latino television spots by roughly 50 percent. On Friday, the campaign put out a list of two dozen Latino business leaders who are endorsing her campaign for governor. Her tough stance on illegal immigration has been softened with an emphasis on a temporary guest worker program “so that good people like Nicky can work in this country legally.”

Whitman’s web site leads with a counterattack against the “smear” and “political stunt” involving her illegal housekeeper. She blames the Brown campaign and especially Gloria Allred, the celebrity attorney representing Diaz Santillan. Although Whitman’s former housekeeper admits she lied about her legal status, she says her former employer mistreated her.

As proof of collusion between Brown and Allred, Whitman supporters point to Allred’s backing of Democrats over the years. Allred has contributed some $6,000 to Democratic candidates since 2000, including $150 to Jerry Brown’s 2006 campaign to become California attorney general.

More significant may be Brown’s union backers, who are making much of the housekeeper affair.

In a new Spanish-language campaign ad, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hammers Whitman.

"Whitman attacks undocumented workers to win votes, but an undocumented woman worked in her house for nine years," a narrator says. "Whitman says one thing in Spanish and something different when she speaks English. The true Whitman has no shame. She is a woman of two faces."

Despite Brown’s union backing, Whitman’s campaign is heavily outspending her opponent.

Meanwhile, says Whitman, firing Diaz Santillan “was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.”

“My family and I love Nicky, but she had lied to us for nine years,” she writes on her web site. “And more than that she had broken the law. And the facts are as simple as that.”

The next month will tell whether the facts indeed are as simple as that and whether it makes any difference in who becomes California’s next governor.

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