Radio hosts pounce on Whitman’s softening her tone on immigration


It doesn’t take much to get John and Ken into a swivet — the radio duo’s fan base was built on indignation — but this week Meg Whitman offered them more than enough with which to work.

Outraged over Whitman’s new, more liberal tone on immigration, they filled the airwaves — and they have plenty to fill, with five hours on KFI every workday — with broadsides at the Republican nominee for governor. They mocked her statements as “garbage,” read aloud their correspondence with a campaign aide they labeled a “weasel” and recounted old interviews to show her change in emphasis. They used the station’s website to scream “Stop the Pandering” and urge listeners to barrage Whitman’s campaign with phone calls and her Facebook page with criticisms.

By the end of the week, the voicemail attached to the number they had supplied was too full to accept any more calls, and Whitman’s Facebook page was awash in supportive sentiments like “Here’s a note for ya, Meg… Go away! Go run for Governor of Mexico!”

Hell, it turns out, hath no fury like radio hosts scorned.

It was easy to predict that Whitman, having slid to the right in the primary to attract GOP voters, would sashay back to the center now that independent voters and Democrats are in the mix. But never before in California politics has anyone spent so much money to create one persona, only to switch gears and head in a different direction. Because of money alone, Whitman’s switch in tone seems that much more pronounced.

In May, for example, Whitman was airing an ad in which she was described as “tough as nails” on illegal immigrants by her campaign chairman, Pete Wilson, the former governor who pressed the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994.

“Illegal immigrants should not expect benefits from the state of California,” Whitman said in the ad.

Now, however, she has raised billboards in Spanish citing her opposition to 187 and to the recently approved Arizona law against illegal immigrants, the toughest state measure in the country. And her campaign circulated an article it said she had written for a Spanish-language newspaper chain in which she called for a “thoughtful conversation” to solve the issue and for a “fair and practical solution” for the millions of undocumented workers now in the country.

“If I’m going around saying that I’m going to be tough as nails on immigration, and then saying I’m against 187 and Arizona to the Spanish-language folks — that second message is that you’d rather have a warmer, more accessible climate” for illegal immigrants, John Kobylt, half of the radio team, said in an interview. “That’s contradictory.”

Whitman appears to have had fewer changes of position than of emphasis; in the primary campaign she talked tough on the airwaves but more quietly acknowledged her opposition to 187 and the Arizona law; now she is highlighting her opposition to 187 and the Arizona law and has quieted the tough talk.

In at least one instance, however, she has changed outright. In a plan released during the primary campaign, Whitman said that as governor, she would create a system under which “state and local law enforcement agencies conduct inspections of workplaces suspected of employing undocumented workers.” Now, as the Sacramento Bee pointed out last week, her campaign says that the inspections would take place under federal purview.

The switch enraged John and Ken and like-minded conservatives because it was, in effect, a reverse Arizona: While that state was taking immigration matters into its own hands, Whitman was deferring to the federal government, which they see as unresponsive to concerns about illegal immigration.

Whitman’s campaign team insists that she has remained consistent throughout. But details of her proposals can lead to confusion.

She has said repeatedly that she opposed 187 on the grounds that it punished children. “I don’t think children should be held accountable for the sins of their parents,” she said in a spring appearance in Redondo Beach.

But although she approves of illegal immigrant children attending elementary and high schools, she opposes allowing them to attend public colleges in California — even though each of those entities is supported by tax dollars.

“Higher education is a privilege, it’s not a right. Taxpayers should have the protection of not having their dollars go to higher education for adults that are in the country illegally,” said Whitman strategist Rob Stutzman. The distinction, he added, is that college attendees are adult.

“Once somebody is old enough, under their own power as adults, to take actions to correct their immigration status, they should do so,” he said. Asked whether that meant that 18-year-olds should leave the country, he replied, “Under current circumstances, yes.”

The stance put Whitman on a collision course with her own Spanish-language television ad. In it, she said, “Latino kids attending public schools in California today will be tomorrow’s doctors, engineers, businessmen and teachers. I want them to have the opportunity to go as far in life as their God-given talent will take them.” Asked whether Spanish-language viewers would understand that she was referring only to legal resident children, Stutzman replied: “Yes.”

In her Spanish-language newspaper article, Whitman took pains to describe her position on immigration as quite similar to that of Democratic nominee Jerry Brown: “There is very little over which Jerry Brown and I disagree,” she wrote. But they do disagree on the biggest question: what to do about the millions of undocumented residents currently in California.

Brown favors immigration reform that allows undocumented people a path toward citizenship. “We have to find a way to make legitimate people who are contributing to our society,” he said during a call to John and Ken on Thursday.

Whitman opposes that but favors allowing a limited number of illegal immigrants to apply as guest workers; the rest would have to return to their home countries, Stutzman said.

The intent of Whitman’s approach in the newspaper article and the billboards seems twofold. She hopes to convince both Latinos and white independent and moderate voters that she is not the sort of Republican they fled in past elections. Doing that would shift more of the campaign conversation to the economy, which Whitman’s campaign sees as her strong suit.

The money that helped her win the nomination is now making that case for her, and even Kobylt acknowledges its strength.

“She has enough money to run two simultaneous campaigns regarding immigration, one aimed at English-speaking voters and a second one aimed at Spanish-speaking voters,” he said. But he also promised to nag her over the airwaves until election day.

And he offered some advice to the candidate: “Don’t get into a fight with two guys who have 25 hours to fill each week.”

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