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Brown, Whitman heatedly debate illegal immigration

Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown tangled Saturday over Whitman’s employment of an illegal immigrant housekeeper, exchanging blistering jabs as they met for their second televised debate.

The most direct confrontation between the two candidates of the election season came when the moderator asked Whitman about revelations earlier this week that she employed Nicandra Diaz Santillan, whom she fired in 2009 after nine years. Whitman has denied knowing that Diaz Santillan was undocumented until shortly before she was dismissed.

Whitman turned to face Brown and accused him of being behind Diaz Santillan’s emergence.

“Jerry, you should be ashamed,” Whitman said. “You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there. You should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions.”

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Brown denied involvement and countered that Whitman has repeatedly called for employers to be held responsible for their hires. He said she was failing to take responsibility for her actions.

“Don’t run for governor if you can’t stand up on your own two feet and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake, I’m sorry, let’s go on from here,’ ” he said. “You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions, but you don’t take accountability.”

The 60-minute debate, held on the Cal State Fresno campus, was much more confrontational and their accusations much more personal than their first meeting, which took place Tuesday night at UC Davis.

Saturday’s debate was filmed midday, with questions posed in Spanish and simultaneously translated for the candidates. It was aired later, online and on Univision stations, after Spanish voiceovers were added to the candidate responses.

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The meeting was plagued by technical difficulties. Immediately after the tense exchange about the housekeeper, the translation system stopped working, and both candidates were taken off stage for half an hour and placed in separate holding areas.

Univision reaches millions of Latino households across the nation, and the fact that the candidates agreed to hold one of their three debates on the network showed the electoral importance of Latino voters. Latinos make up roughly one-fifth of the electorate in California, and Whitman has been aggressively courting them to help her overcome the Democrats’ double-digit voter registration advantage.

“I cannot win the governor’s race without the Latino vote,” she said during the debate.

As in their first debate, Whitman hewed tightly to her campaign stump speech and answered questions about a wide variety of topics by returning repeatedly to her three priorities — creating jobs, reducing government spending and fixing the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school system.

Brown frequently touted his family legacy — his father served two terms as governor — and his own record as governor, Oakland mayor and the state’s current attorney general. He was more disciplined than in the last debate, in which he cracked jokes and peppered his statements with salty language.

Education, unemployment and the water shortage in the Central Valley played prominent roles in the clash, but the quandary about how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States dominated much of the debate.

Brown accused Whitman of saying “one thing in Spanish, one thing in English” regarding government benefits for illegal immigrants. He noted that she has said she would have opposed Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that would have denied taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants, but ran radio ads during the primary that said those in the country illegally should not receive such benefits.

“This is a question about talking out of both sides of her mouth,” he said.

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Whitman said Brown was being disingenuous.

“I have been entirely consistent on my immigration stance from Day One of this campaign,” she said.

Whitman was repeatedly pressed on whether, once the border is secured, she would allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants here; she refused to answer and instead repeated her campaign platform of securing the border and creating a temporary guest worker program.

Her stance led to an awkward encounter when a Cal State Fresno student in the audience told the candidates that she is about to graduate with honors but won’t be able to find work because she is undocumented. She asked both candidates their positions on the DREAM Act, which would provide an opportunity for citizenship for some illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, complete some college or military service and meet other requirements.

Brown said he would support the measure, and then added that his opponent does not think undocumented students should be allowed to enroll in state colleges.

“She wants to kick you out of this school because you are not documented and that is wrong, morally and humanly,” Brown said.

Whitman said such a move is necessary because legal California residents were losing access to state colleges. She has said she would allow undocumented students to attend taxpayer-sponsored schools until 12th grade, but no further.

“I am so pleased by your success,” she said, before noting that budget cuts have limited university enrollment. “I don’t think it’s fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher university and favor undocumenteds.”

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Brown, whose positions on legalizing undocumented citizens are more in line with many Latino voters, was pressed about his opposition to giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants and his opposition to sanctuary cities, which protect undocumented residents against some forms of federal immigration intervention. He reiterated his opposition, and then ridiculed Whitman’s proposal to create a guest worker program.

“You don’t just bring in semi-serfs and say do our dirty work and then we’re finished with you, like an orange — you just throw them away, that’s after you’ve squeezed them,” he said. “That’s not right.”

Most of the debate was serious, but the one light moment occurred when the moderator asked each candidate to name three qualities in their rival that would make him or her a good governor.

“What shall I say?” Brown asked. “She’s smart. And she’s pretty tough, I can tell you that because I’ve been campaigning against her for several months. And she’s had a pretty interesting set of job experiences.”

He added, “Can I tell you about all my qualities?”

Whitman jumped in to list Brown’s traits: “Well, I think he cares a great deal about California. He has had a long career in public service. And I really like his choice of wife. I’m a big fan of Anne Gust,” she said, before turning the answer to herself.

“So what do I bring to this table?” Whitman said, and then spoke about her credentials for the next minute and a half, as Brown stood by silently, looking peeved.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

michael.mishak@latimes.com


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