Damage Control: Meg Whitman and the Latino Vote

Tensions are high at the Univision debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown. PlayABC News
WATCH War of Words at California Gubernatorial Debate

Republican candidate Meg Whitman and her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown made two things Saturday in the first ever Spanish-language debate in the race for governor of California: history and good television.

History was made because the 60-minute event -- held midday on the campus of Cal State Fresno and translated accordingly for both the audience and the candidates -- marked a political acknowledgment of the increasingly important Latino vote in the Golden State.

A political acknowledgment, which experts believe, is both astute and no longer really an option for political hopefuls in this country.

Tensions are high at the Univision debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown. Play
War of Words at California Gubernatorial Debate

"The demographics are very clear," says Shira Toeplitz, National Political Reporter for Politico. "Hispanic voters are a growing block of voters and politicians are going to have to look at that when they want to run for re-election, this year or two years from now or two years from that."

It is largely undisputed in the political world that the Latino vote is an essential one. Latinos compose approximately 21 percent of the electorate and roughly a third of California's population as a whole.

In fact, Whitman herself even admitted at the start of the debate, "I cannot win the governor's race without the Latino vote."

And that's exactly why her campaign has so aggressively targeted California's Latino community; opening neighborhood offices in the state's Latino hubs and creating numerous ads for Spanish-language radio and television stations that communicate her ideas on jobs and the K-12 education system.

And, up until this week, these focused campaign efforts had been working. Whitman had garnered approximately 26 percent of the California Latino vote.

"$120 million of her own money later, she was leading in the polls," says Toeplitz. "Traditionally Democrats have a hold on Latino voters in most areas of the country, including California; but Meg Whitman really made a play for that section of California and that voting block. And she was doing pretty well, relative to other Republicans."

That is until Whitman's former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, came forward earlier this week -- flanked by powerhouse Democratic attorney Gloria Allred -- to announce that she is an illegal immigrant and she had been employed by Whitman for nine years.

This is where Saturday's gubernatorial debate got ugly because, as hard as Whitman and the debate's moderator tried to turn the discussion away from this topic to issues like jobs, taxes and education, Brown tried even harder to keep the conversation exactly where it was -- on Nicky Diaz.

So, when the candidates were asked about their platforms on immigration, Brown slyly said, "These people are working for Miss Whitman."

When Whitman tried to discuss her plans for future tax breaks, Brown responded:

"It's not just about cost-benefit, about tax breaks, about competition; we're also human beings. When someone works with you, you do have familial bonds and ties. And I think, if that story is to be believed, I think Meg flunked the most fundamental test of all, and that is to treat people with respect and decency."

And when Whitman answered the moderator's question about how she plans to help her Latino constituents by declaring that she plans to crack down on jobs and education to fix California's ailing economy; Brown responded, "Talking about cracking down, Miss Whitman obviously did not crack down on herself."

And when the candidates were asked directly about Diaz, things got really heated. First, Whitman attempted to appeal to the audience with candidness.

"Here's the real story of what happened," she said. "We hired Nicky because she had all the appropriate documents. We went through a hiring agency and, in June of 2009, she came to me and said that she was here illegally and did not have the appropriate documents. I made the hardest decision I had to make in my life and it was to let her go. And my lawyer said there's not much you can do for Nicky. She forged documents. She was here illegally. ... So, it broke my heart.

"But you know the real tragedy here is Nicky," she said. "After Nov. 2, nobody is going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz. And Jerry, you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions."

Then, Jerry Brown accused Whitman of not taking responsibility for her own actions.

"This is incredible, when you try to evade responsibility," Brown shot back, raising his voice. "You're going around the state saying employers must be accountable for hiring unlawful people; that there ought to be raids on businesses. ... You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the Left, blamed the unions; but you don't take accountability. And you can't be a leader, unless you're willing to stand on your own two feet and say, 'Yep, I made a mistake.'"

Next, Whitman tried to directly rebut this accusation.

"You know what? I took accountability," she barked back, breaking her usual calm. "We hired someone who I thought was here legally. She was not. We had to, unfortunately, let her go. And what would you have had me do? Would you have had me call the attorney general's office to have her deported? What would you have had me do other than exactly what I did? My husband and I played by the rules. And the fact that your campaign, two weeks ago, was talking about this issue; the fact that you are joined at the hip with Gloria Allred; it was a political stunt. You should be ashamed and embarrassed."

In the end, the debate was like most others, in that the candidates were both uncompromising in their support of their own side of the story.

Brown argued that Whitman's personal history with Nicky Diaz makes her a hypocrite. And Whitman argued that Brown was behind Nicky Diaz's untimely emergence, which makes him both selfish and heartless.

And the jury is still out on which side Latino voters will choose to believe.

"It's certainly not the nail in the coffin for her campaign," Toeplitz says. "We still have four weeks left until Election Day. She can recover from this. Polls show a tight race. Does it help her pitch with Hispanic voters, though? Not really."

One thing is for sure, at least. As the moderator informed both gubernatorial candidates before their closing statements Saturday, "Hispanic voters are listening."