Meg Whitman's 54th birthday Wednesday featured a rough time on the campaign trail because of what critics on both the left and the right view as the GOP gubernatorial nominee's shifting tone on illegal immigration.
Continuing her aggressive courtship of Latino voters, Whitman opened a campaign office in East Los Angeles and announced new Spanish-language advertisements aimed at this vital voter group. But her words were interrupted by a raucous crowd of protesters outside.
"There has not been a Republican candidate for governor that has had an office in East L.A. for 30 years. So we are going to fight for every vote," she said as protesters picketed, chanted and banged drums outside the strip-mall venue.
The interruption was unusual for a Whitman campaign event; her appearances are usually highly scripted and tightly controlled. The candidate seemed rattled, occasionally stumbled over her words and kept her remarks short.
She hit two of her usual talking points, job creation and fixing California's schools, but did not mention the third plank of her platform: cutting government spending.
She later said the Democratic and labor operatives who organized the protest targeted her because of her calls for reform. "They know I'm going to disrupt the status quo in Sacramento," Whitman told reporters.
Outside, the crowd of protesters grew to about 100, according to law enforcement estimates — double the number of supporters present. Sheriff's deputies were called and secured an exit path for the candidate.
Whitman walked out smiling broadly, waving and toting a campaign poster that said, "Mas Trabajos," which means "More Jobs." The crowd, carrying signs with slogans such as "Meg Whitman=Anti-Immigrant" and "Stop Lying 2 Latinos," jeered.
Since winning the Republican primary in June, Whitman has dramatically shifted her tone on illegal immigration. In the primary campaign, she ran ads saying that she was "tough as nails" and undocumented residents should not be allowed to have driver's licenses or attend state-funded universities.
Now, in Spanish-language ads and billboards, she proclaims her opposition to Arizona's controversial crackdown and Proposition 187, the 1994 effort to eliminate taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants in California. She took these stances quietly during the primary campaign.
Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877 and one of Wednesday's protest organizers, scoffed at Whitman's efforts to woo Latinos. The ads she aired during the World Cup soccer games, the billboards she has scattered across Latino communities and the glossy Spanish-language booklets being mailed to Latino voters won't work, he said.
Latinos will remember that former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was the most visible supporter of Proposition 187, is her campaign co-chairman and that she spoke harshly about illegal immigrants during the primary campaign, Garcia said, adding, "She can't buy the Latino vote."
After the event, Whitman headed to the conservative "John and Ken" show on KFI-AM (640). The influential hosts for weeks have been hammering the candidate for pivoting on illegal immigration.
The interview was combative and tense. Whitman danced around many of the hosts' questions, such as why geography and size make Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration unworkable in California, or why she is running ads about Latino children but not those of other ethnicities.
"Why don't you make all your positions clear in all languages? That's all we're asking," said co-host John Kobylt, adding that she should translate her billboards into English. "Put those in English-speaking Orange County," he said.
Their questions led to two policy answers — that illegal immigrants who want citizenship should return to their home countries and apply, and that she is leaning against Proposition 23, the November ballot measure that would suspend the state's landmark climate-change law.
But mostly, they argued about immigration. Whitman, whom the pair interrupted constantly, sounded hoarse by the end of the half-hour interview.
"The three of us are going to disagree about this," she said, her voice worn thin.