The latest dramatic chapter of the governor’s race, torn from the pages of eMeg’s Secret Diary, finds the campaign of one of the richest women in California threatened by the comments of one of the poorest.
Finally, a political story TV can understand.
For Republican Meg Whitman, who employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper and nanny for nine years, the revelations on Wednesday by Nicky Diaz Santillan and her attorney, Gloria Allred, not only raise legal questions of what eMeg knew and when she knew it, but also serious political ones about her personal integrity, not to mention her efforts to court the state’s crucial bloc of Latino voters.
Team Whitman responded swiftly when word broke on TMZ that Allred had called a press conference with “explosive” allegations by the candidate’s former maid. Strategists did their best to a) preempt the presser by sliming Allred, one of L.A.’s most notorious celebrity lawyers and b) argue through the media about social security cards, employment applications and a host of other documents that they insisted prove conclusively that eMeg is pure as the driven snow in the matter.
At the end of the day, despite her team’s yeomen efforts at damage control, Whitman had been knocked way off message and was entangled in a gnarly web of charges and counter-charges, caught in the worst position for any political candidate: defensively explaining herself.
As a political matter, the most significant impact of the flap on the campaign will come, in still-undetermined magnitude, in Whitman’s multi-million dollar effort to take enough Latino votes away from Democrat Jerry Brown to help push her over the top on November 2.
With Whitman and Brown preparing to debate in Fresno Saturday, an event co-sponsored by Univision and set to be broadcast in Spanish and English, Democratic strategists organizing Latino voter registration and GOTV efforts were privately pleased over the expected political effect of the disclosures made by Allred and Diaz, eMeg’s former employee.
Calbuzz hears that a coalition of labor and Democratic organizations is planning a major demonstration in Fresno on Saturday and expects the Diaz matter to add considerable enthusiasm and profile to that effort: “We’re going to dominate the scene,” said one strategist.
“It’s possible for her to win the 15 percent of the Latino vote that is Republican,” the source added with a smile, “although she’s now putting that in jeopardy.”
Coming one day after the first televised debate between Whitman and Brown, the surprising turn of events proved anew that 24 hours is a lifetime in politics. Here is a look at the key issues in the controversy.
The facts: There is no disagreement that Diaz was undocumented during the nine years she worked for Whitman, from spring of 2000 to late June, 2009: the key question is when did eMeg find out about it.
Meg says she was clueless about Nicky’s immigration status until her housekeeper informed her last year, on or about June 20 and she fired her June 29. That was some four months after Whitman had announced her candidacy for governor. (Diaz says [@1:25] she spoke with Whitman and Dr. Harsh on June 20. Harsh was furious and said, “I told you she was going to bring us trouble.” And on June 24, in a phone call, Whitman told her she could not help her with immigration.)
The maid says Meg had to know before 2009 that there was a problem. Among other things, Diaz and Allred said, the Whitmans received a letter from the Social Security Administration dated April 22, 2003 informing them that there was a discrepancy with the Social Security number Nicki had provided to the employment agency that sent her to eMeg; Diaz also alleges that several similar letters came later from Social Security but that the Whitmans threw them in the trash, where she saw them.
Whitman insists there was no such letter; Allred hinted broadly at her press conference that she has a copy but was not prepared to release it yet. Production of the document would put the lie to Whitman’s statement; Allred’s failure to produce it would be exculpatory for eMeg.
Another key issue on the documents released by the Whitman campaign in its effort to show that she is blameless in the matter: Neither the W-4 tax return nor the I-9 Immigration and Naturalization Service form [click on View Docs for the pdfs] for Diaz in 2000 was signed by either Whitman or her husband, in the line designated for employers. The I-9 requires employers to sign the following statement:
I attest, under penalty of perjury, that I have examined the document(s) presented by the above named employee, that the above-listed document(s) appear to be genuine and to relate to the employee named, that the employee began employment on (month/day/year) and that to the best of my knowledge the employee is eligible to work in the United States.
The problem for Meg: in written and direct statements by her and the campaign Wednesday, she said she relied on the social security card and drivers license that Diaz presented to confirm that she was in the country legally.
Why, then, didn’t Meg sign the statement affirming that belief? The Whitman campaign did not return calls seeking comment.
The optics: The video of Diaz sobbing and describing how she says she was treated badly by eMeg, shot in Allred’s office at the press conference, is very powerful stuff.
Whether you believe that Whitman knew for years that Diaz was illegal, or that she simply fired her as soon as she found out, it’s not hard to imagine clips of the emotional words and images of the domestic worker turning up in an independent expenditure committee ad for Brown (Diaz later repeated her statement in Spanish).
Recounting her recollection of the conversation in which Whitman fired her, the woman said:
“From now on you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. You never have seen me and I have never seen you. Do you understand me? . . . and she hang me up . . . She was throwing me away like a piece of garbage . . . She treat me as if I was not a human being.”
In her own brief comments to reporters, recorded by the Chronicle’s resourceful Joe Garofoli, eMeg tried to blame the whole thing on Brown, whom she accused of a political stunt, and on Allred, whom she said was manipulating the housekeeper.
“Everything Gloria Allred is saying is an absolute lie,” she said.
The problem for eMeg, however, is less what Allred said (although there could be legal sanctions attached to the civil complaint the attorney said she will be filing) than what Diaz said.
The politics: Explaining the way she managed her household help for nine years was most likely not what eMeg hoped to be doing the day after she turned in a solid performance in her debate with Brown (although one reporter noticed eMeg was very shaky, almost trembling, at her post-debate press conference, and speculated, without a shred of evidence, she might have just learned of Allred’s plans. But we digress).
Several issues occur:
First, either she knew that her housekeeper was illegal, or she didn’t perform the due diligence to find out, which doesn’t speak well of her much-vaunted executive abilities. Liar or incompetent? You be the judge.
Beyond that, there is the question of eMeg’s oft-shifting policy positions on illegal immigration.
At Tuesday night’s debate, she stated, as clearly as she has done during the campaign, that she opposed any legislation that would provide a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented workers.
Translating her policy view to her personal circumstance, this led her to slam the door in the face of a woman who labored loyally, by all accounts, in her home for nine years and was asking for her help in making herself legal (BTW, since Nicky was doing all the housework and schlepping the kids around, why couldn’t Meg find time to vote? Inquiring minds want to know).
Her behavior will fuel Brown’s narrative that she is a hypocrite with an enlarged sense of entitlement, and that her wealth, values and social status give her contempt or, at best, indifference to the real-life problems of real-life working people. He made the point during the debate when he argued their values are very different because he respects the dignity of “people who clean bed pans, our police, our fire…I do cherish and appreciate the work they do.”
While it is still unclear what the fallout from the media storm over eMeg’s treatment of Diaz will be on the governor’s race, it is clear that Democrats will do all they can to keep it alive for Saturday’s second debate.
In that regard, it’s worth noting that the 6 p.m. newscast on Spanish language KMEX-TV in L.A. has a larger audience than any the three major networks.
PS: Did anyone else think it was more than a little suspicious that Team Whitman held a conference call to refute Nicky’s charges even before she and Allred made them, as if they were prepared for an eruption about eMeg’s illegal housekeeper problem?