In the very first seconds of the Univision debate with Jerry Brown in Fresno on Saturday, Meg Whitman clearly defined the political stakes:
“The Latino vote is incredibly important to this election,” she said. “I cannot win the governor’s race without the Latino vote.”
It cannot be known until the November election, of course, whether eMeg’s debate performance succeeded in helping to make her candidacy a serious option for Hispanic voters. The early returns in the Calbuzz Why Wait for the Voters Electoral Count, however, show decisively that she didn’t get the job done.
After three days of stories filled with charges about her callous treatment of an undocumented Mexican native who worked in her home for nine years, Whitman’s challenge in the historic, broadcast-in-Spanish debate was to demonstrate that she can connect with the hopes and aspirations of Latinos.
Whitman gave solid, conservative answers on most of the issues. But, despite her own opening statement about the crucial importance of this voting bloc (which we think she overstates), she said almost nothing to suggest to Latinos that she would be there for them any more than she was for Nicky Diaz, whom she booted to the curb when she learned her housekeeper was an illegal immigrant.
“Why did you not show compassion for this longtime employee?” asked the moderator, Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas, setting the stage for the money moments of the debate, which will probably be replayed, oh, no more than 12 or 13 million times between now and November 2. [Here's the clip]
“This is a very sad situation,” Whitman replied, first describing her own hurt feelings because Diaz in her recent press conference called her “Ms. Whitman” and not “Meg” as she had for all those years.
“The real tragedy here is Nicky,” she added. “After Nov. 2, no one’s going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz.”
Then she turned directly to Brown and (to the astonishment and delight of Camp Krusty) attacked:
“Jerry, you know you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there. You should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz at the altar of your political ambitions.”
In that instant, Calbuzz had a deeply profound thought: OMG!!
For reasons that remain unclear, eMeg used her spotlight moment to point a finger of blame at Brown, with absolutely no evidence, for exposing her hiring and long-term employment of an undocumented housekeeper, Which big-brain adviser thought that was a good idea? Perhaps the same one who suggested she not mention the matter back in June 2009, when she could have disposed of the issue with a couple of page 8 stories, if that.
When he had a chance to respond a moment later, Brown, whose greatest strength as a debater is the counter-punch, denied he had anything to do with the Diaz affair and let fly.
“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…
“You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions but you don’t take accountability. You can’t be a leader unless you’re willing to stand on your own two feet and say, ‘yup, I made a mistake and I’m going on from here.’”
Things seemed to go from bad to worse for eMeg after that. In an exchange likely to resonate with Latino parents, she defended her proposal to ban illegal immigrants from California higher ed institutions in answering a question from a young woman who said she was an honors student at Fresno State University:
“Here is the challenge we face: Our resources are scarce. We are in terrible economic times and slots have been eliminated at the California State University system—I think they’re down by 40,000 students. Same is true at the … the University of California system. Programs have been cut, and California citizens have been denied admission to these universities and I don’t think it’s fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher universities and favor undocumenteds.”
“Undocumenteds”? Really? And was she really arguing that this bright young Latina was hogging a place that some deserving white kid should have had?
Brown, who was very aggressive throughout, jumped on that answer as well. He said he would sign legislation, known as the state Dream Act, to make it easier for illegal immigrants to obtain financial aid from California’s public universities and colleges – a bill Gov. Schwarzenegger recently vetoed.
“Ms. Whitman goes beyond opposing the Dream Act. She wants to kick you out of the school because you are not documented, and that is wrong—morally and humanly.”
We wondered why he didn’t mention that former Gov. Pete Wilson is chairman of her campaign. At least she didn’t suggest she’d round ‘em all up and deport them. Or did she?
“Illegal immigration is just that, it is illegal,” she said. “And we need to make sure we have the workers that the economy needs to grow and thrive,” Whitman said. “We live in a rule of law. There is a judicial process, and we have to abide by that. So I think the best thing that I can do to help the Latino community in California is as first and foremost, as I said, jobs.”
Brown countered that it’s wrong to bring workers in to fill labor shortages and then herd them home.
“This is about human beings. And you don’t bring in temporary workers and then when you’ve used them up, you send them back. … You don’t just bring in semi-serfs and say, ‘Do our dirty work,’ and then we’re finished with you like an orange and just throw it away. That’s after you’ve squeezed it. That’s not right.”
On “path to citizenship” alone, Whitman dug in against a position that 90% of Latinos (and Brown) support.
And it was notable that when Meg later accused Jerry of not being “accountable” for Oakland schools when he was mayor of that city, there was a low, rippling laugh throughout the audience, whose members had been admonished not to say anything.
The Univision alleged simulcast translation into English was so poorly engineered, there won’t likely be too many TV clips in English. But in Spanish, watch out. Latinos who had been flirting with Whitman are likely, Calbuzz thinks, to default to the guy who marched with Cesar Chavez and dated Linda Rondstadt.
We can hear the conversation around the kitchen table: “Maybe he’s un poco loco, but at least he doesn’t accuse the help of stealing the mail.”
A couple of other key points:
Water - Whitman had her best moments when she and Brown were asked about their plans for increasing state water deliveries, a crucial issue for Central Valley residents.
She strongly endorsed the $11 billion water bond measure that the governor and Legislature agreed on last year, but which they removed from the ballot because they feared recession-weary voters would defeat it; although she criticized some “pork” she said was in the measure, she showed a good grasp of the issue and sympathy for the economic hardships of the valley.
By contrast, Brown offered a head-scratching answer about how Kern County was to blame for the defeat of a 1982 Peripheral Canal initiative plan he had sponsored. Brown was historically and politically accurate: the giant Kern County agribusiness conglomerates J.G. Boswell and Salyer Land Co. helped defeat the canal plan by financing the opposition to it, in a strange bedfellow alliance with environmentalists that was driven by their own, narrow economic interests. But it wasn’t much of an answer for the 99% of the viewers who neglected to brush up on the history of California water politics before the debate.
Taxes - Brown repeatedly hammered Whitman for her support of repealing the state capital gains tax. As he did in the UC Davis debate earlier in the week, he not only called it a gift for “billionaires and millionaires” but also criticized it as a budget-buster, saying it would increase the state’s deficit by $5 billion.
Whitman responded again by characterizing the capital gains tax as a job-killing obstacle to business development, but after days of being hunkered down in crisis mode, bludgeoned by the controversy over her former housekeeper, eMeg’s answers lacked the spirit and spark they had in her previous encounter with Brown.
AP has a good round-up of other issues here.
Bottom line: Whitman took a huge risk in turning on Brown and attacking him – without a shred of evidence – for being behind the Nicky Diaz story. He staggered her with his roundhouse right response and, although she rallied a little in the debate’s final moments, she never really recovered. Looking tired and drawn, she mostly seemed to be going through the motions. A clear victory for Brown.
PS — Our video reporter, intern Jennifer Fey, trekked to Fresno and offered this nifty take from a student’s point of view.