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Whitman courts Latinos in bid to defuse controversy over maid

Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor has doubled its advertising on Spanish-language radio and increased the number of its Latino television spots by roughly 50% as the former EBay chief executive seeks to blunt the impact of news that she employed, then fired, an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper.

Publicly, Whitman’s campaign aides say the controversy over her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, will not harm Whitman’s prospects among Latino voters, especially after the multimillion-dollar investment she has already made to reach them.

Latinos “care about jobs, and we’ve been in that community communicating for a year trying to earn their support every day,” said Mike Murphy, Whitman’s senior strategist.

But the campaign’s actions portray greater concern.

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In addition to bolstering the ad volume on Spanish-language media, according to a well-placed source familiar with the ad purchases, Whitman’s first sit-down interview Thursday after she held a news conference about Diaz Santillan was with the Spanish-language Univision network followed by Telemundo. On Friday, the campaign released a list of two dozen Latino business leaders who have endorsed Whitman, including Joel Ayala, the former president and chief executive of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

Whitman also conducted a flurry of media interviews Friday — a day which she might otherwise have devoted to preparation for a debate Saturday with her opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, which will be aired on the Spanish-language Univision network.

She continued to deny allegations by Diaz Santillan’s attorney, Gloria Allred, that she had exploited the former housekeeper and knowingly employed her despite her undocumented status. Whitman says that she relied on an employment agency to hire Diaz Santillan, who had given the agency a fake Social Security number and California driver’s license.

She maintains that during the nine years Diaz Santillan worked for her, neither she nor her husband had any reason to suspect their housekeeper was an illegal immigrant. Allred has produced a 2003 letter sent to Whitman by the Social Security Administration that states Diaz Santillan’s name does not match her Social Security number. The letter appears to bear a note in Whitman’s husband’s handwriting.

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In an interview on Fox TV with Sean Hannity, Whitman accused Democrats of exploiting Diaz Santillan for political purposes, regardless of the effect on the former housekeeper’s life.

“What’s going to happen to Nicky after Nov. 2, whether I win or lose this election? No ones cares about Nicky Diaz. She’s going to be deported. Her three children were born here, her husband is here. They have sacrificed her for Jerry Brown’s political ambitions and Gloria Allred’s, you know, PR stunt,” Whitman said.

Brown has not personally commented on the controversy, but some of his allies have. On Thursday, California’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union, which supports the Democratic candidate, announced that it had launched a $5-million effort to attack Whitman and boost Brown’s standing with Latino voters. The union bought time for a Spanish-language TV ad in Fresno and Los Angeles that says, “Whitman attacks undocumented workers to win votes, but an undocumented woman worked in her home for nine years.”

The rapid and intense exchanges show the political minefield that the case could become for Whitman a month before the election.

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The candidate was forced to the right on immigration during the Republican primary, promising to be “tough as nails” on illegal immigrants.

But within days of winning the June primary, Whitman’s rhetoric swung to the center, and she began an aggressive pursuit of Latino voters. Whitman already has done more to court California’s Latino electorate than any Republican in modern memory, opening neighborhood offices; flooding Spanish-language airwaves, including ads during the World Cup; erecting billboards in Latino communities and signs at bus stops; and quashing a divisive debate at the state GOP convention about Arizona’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Latinos are a key component in her strategy for victory because they could help her overcome Democrats’ double-digit voter registration edge in California. A recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll showed Brown outpacing her, receiving 51% of the support of likely Latino voters. But Whitman received 32%, approaching the sweet spot that analysts say is necessary for her to win on Nov. 2.

Political observers say the housekeeper controversy could hurt her standing with these voters.

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Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine and head of the school’s Latino studies program, said Latinos are likely to suspect that Whitman should have known about her housekeeper’s status after nine years of service. Moreover, the timing of the firing, as she was running for governor, would “appear to them as reinforcing the way America deals with illegal immigration,” he said. “We’re willing to rely on their labor until they become inconvenient to us. It makes her appear hypocritical.”

In Fresno, where Whitman and Brown will be conducting Saturday’s debate, many Latino business owners and shoppers at the Fulton Mall said they doubted Whitman’s version of events.

“It’s hard for me to believe she didn’t have an inkling of knowing,” said Amanda Duarte, a 32-year-old child advocate. “Nine years is a long time to form a relationship with someone.”

Still, Duarte said she was undecided and weighing all the evidence, including the fact that Diaz Santillan is being represented by Allred, who also represented a plaintiff who made politically damaging personal allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger when he first ran for office in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election.

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Elena Martinez, a clerk at Botanica Judas Tadeo, said she didn’t even realize Brown was running until three days ago, when he was mentioned in a news report. She’s voting for Whitman, she said, because Brown “had the opportunity and he did what he could do in eight years. We need a change.”

michael.mishak@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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