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Five Ways eMeg Blew Her Campaign for Governor

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

In June 2009, a few months after she launched her campaign to become governor of California, Meg Whitman abruptly fired Nicky Diaz Santillan, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had served as her housekeeper for nine years.

No one knew it at the time, but Whitman’s words and action in the privacy of her home on June 20, and on the phone four days later, would sow the seeds of her political loss, a debacle that will define her forever as the billionaire who spent more money on a political race than anyone in history and won nothing but a humiliating defeat.

Recollections differ sharply about exactly what happened when Whitman sent Diaz packing. The former eBay CEO insisted she was gracious and caring toward someone she saw as a “member of her extended family.” It broke her heart, she said at one point; only later did she suggest Nicky  should be deported.

At a Sept. 29 press conference with LA Ambulance Chaser Gloria Allred, Diaz said Whitman was cruel and heartless and insisted that her lawyer had told her there was nothing to be done.

“From now on, you don’t know me and I don’t know you,” Diaz said Whitman told her on the phone. “You never have seen me and I have never seen you.”

What Nicky revealed about Meg: The precise details of the episode may remain fuzzy – but its political impact is crystal clear. In the end, the Diaz story dealt two grave wounds that doomed Whitman’s candidacy:

First, the Republican nominee’s memorable Oct. 1 press conference responding to Diaz’s allegations was a public relations disaster. A real-time, real-life event, it was one of only a handful of times that California voters would see Whitman in public, outside of the carefully scripted and controlled campaign events or the unprecedented barrage of TV ads that she beamed into their living rooms. And polls would show that the unfavorable image they already had of the candidate would only grow more negative.

More broadly, Whitman’s handling of the Diaz affair – and her improbable insistence that she had no idea that Diaz was illegal and baseless accusation that Nicky stole the mail — underscored a central failing of her $160+ million effort. Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts once explained that in an executive leader, voters look for someone with a hard head and a soft heart. Whitman surely passed the first test. But her handling of Nicky Diaz – which had already occurred and could not be fixed – exposed her as a rich woman with the hardest of hearts.

She might, back then, have mitigated the damage that came later if she had done what most human beings would do for someone who had cleaned their toilets for nine years: hire her an immigration attorney, give her severance pay, help her find a new job. Whitman did none of those things. Voters – especially Latinos and women – concluded she was, at best, not like them and, at worst, inhuman.

“I could not be any prouder of the race we ran,” Whitman said in a farewell letter to supporters on her campaign web page. It’s a typical statement from a woman who could never admit a mistake, whether it was flipping IPO shares, booting her maid to the curb or refusing to pull down her negative ads when implored to do so in front of 14,000 women.

Because Whitman’s debacle cost an unprecedented sum – including about $142 million of her own money – it will be endlessly dissected by pundits, pros and political scientists alike. Calbuzz covered the race for 20 months, and our archive is filled with reporting, analysis and candid commentary about what we saw as its weaknesses from the beginning. Here is a look at eMeg’s five biggest blunders:

-She never gave people a reason to be for her. At some point, some determined academic will calculate the percentage of negative to positive ads that Whitman ran. Our bet is that at least three-fourths were attacks, first on her primary opponent Steve Poizner and later on Jerry Brown.

Whitman came out swinging early last winter against Poizner, long before most Californians had any idea who Steve Poizner was. After she captured the GOP nomination in June, she almost immediately started bashing Brown. The net effect: the first thing that many people came to learn about Meg Whitman was that she was mean-spirited.

The Murphy-Stutzman-Gomez consultant brain trust programmed their meal ticket to chant jobs, budget and education, which she did. These were to be the decisive issues that would drive Whitman to victory. What they overlooked was that they were running a billionaire newcomer who could not connect by eating chili dogs and traveling in a green bus.

Whitman needed to convince voters of the most critical question that Brown’s pollster, Jim Moore, asks in surveys: Which candidate best fits this description — Has the knowledge and skill to be governor?

But beyond endlessly identifying herself as the person who ran eBay, the Whitman campaign never really introduced their candidate to voters, never gave Californians more than a mantra of political platitudes and a few quick images of her and her husband when they were younger.

Who, in the end, was she? Why hadn’t she voted for 28 years? How come she’d never been engaged in a single civic project? Why did she lie about things she had no reason to lie about – like how government interference slowed down building a new headquarters for Pay Pal, or her position on offshore oil drilling or whether one of her ads included a shot of a border fence?

Calbuzz christened her “eMeg” at the beginning of the race and, in a very real sense, she never told us more about herself than that, which may be why the name stuck, and spread into publications across the country.

-She couldn’t handle the immigration issue. One of the big unanswered questions about the campaign remains what Whitman’s handlers knew about the Diaz matter and when they knew it. Either she told them the full details of the matter and they did nothing about it, which would amount to political malpractice on their part, or she kept the story to herself, which would amount to felony stupidity on her part.

After Whitman told reporters that she had informed her top advisers about the Nicky Diaz events, Calbuzz tried to ask her consultants what they’d been told and when. That’s when her top people stopped speaking to Calbuzz at all. That was more than a month ago. There was no way to answer our question without throwing either themselves or their candidate under the bus. So they just froze us out until we said we wouldn’t ask the question any more.

One of the reasons that the Diaz issue gained such traction was that Whitman offered up a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of positions on illegal immigration. When Poizner made it the centerpiece of his primary campaign, she tacked hard right, enlisting campaign chairman Pete Wilson – the former governor known on the streets of Mexico City as hijo de puta — to cut an ad declaring she would be “tough as nails.” But as soon as the primary ended, she lurched back to the center, with an expensive effort to woo Latino voters, a baldly transparent move that came across as crass opportunism, if not utter hypocrisy.

Once the personal became enmeshed with the political on the issue, she could never untangle herself. She couldn’t help Nicky Diaz become legal because she had taken a stand against a path to citizenship – a policy endorsed by most California voters, including about nine in 10 Latinos.

And she made matters much worse at the Univision debate in Fresno when she told a young Mexican-born woman – valedictorian in her high-school class about to graduate from Fresno State – that she was taking the place at the university of a legitimate California citizen. Any non-white parent hearing that would have been appalled at her utter lack of compassion.

No wonder the LA Times reported that exit polls found Latinos voted 2-to-1 for Brown.

-She didn’t have dinner with Calbuzz. Our standing dinner invitation to eMeg, first issued on Labor Day 2009, became a running joke on our site and elsewhere. But her refusal to sit down with us in an informal setting came to symbolize something greater – a contempt for the press in general, founded on her arrogant belief that she had enough money and power to go over the heads of the media.

Whitman gave an interview to Michael Finnegan of the LA Times the day after she announced her candidacy, and she made several stumbles in it, as he pointed out. For whatever reason, she reacted to that experience not by seeking to learn from her mistakes, but by walling herself from the press forever.

Far more serious than stiffing us for dinner was her refusal throughout the campaign to grant an interview to the venerable San Francisco Chronicle, the second largest newspaper in the state; when she refused to meet with the paper’s editorial board, as every candidate for governor in memory has done, it evinced nothing more than contempt, if not abject fear.

The press corps roiled with tales of interview requests ignored or turned down and, at one point, she even refused to answer questions at a press conference she had called. The net effect was to send a message that Whitman had something to hide, that she was afraid to engage in the normal give and take between politicians and reporters, and it raised suspicions among voters.

Not that anyone in the real world cares about whether reporters have access. They don’t mind if a candidate stiffs the media, if she speaks to them, mingles with them, does something other than staged events with phony, planted questions. People care about media access only to the extent that it’s a surrogate for their access

With her retinue of consultants, pollsters and handlers, Whitman presented herself to the public as being more important and too insulated to understand people like them. It is telling that the California Nurses Association character of Queen Meg, who followed her around the state, drove eMeg crazy, because it cut too close to the truth.

Worse, according to a variety of political consultants from the left and right, Whitman’s failure to get out among the media early in the campaign, where she could make mistakes and learn from them, rendered her brittle and unstable at the end of the campaign, when she needed to be sure on her feet. Whitman’s consultants failed to help her handle the unscripted moments of the campaign — and it was in those moments that voters saw who she really is.

The ultimate example occurred at the Women’s Conference in Long Beach, where she managed to get herself booed by 14,000 women by her mishandling of an idiotic proposal from the “Today Show’s” Matt Lauer to take down her negative advertising. “Of course I will, Matt,” she could have said. “As soon as Jerry Brown Inc. takes down their attack ads on me.”  A seasoned pro could have knocked it out of the park. Just days before the election, she was still a rookie.

When it became clear in the final weeks of the campaign that she was losing, she resorted to driving around in a bus and ordering junk food at diners in a by now pathetically too late effort to “reintroduce” herself to the public.

-She ran only one memorable ad and that blew up in her face. It is astonishing that Whitman spent more than $100 million on paid television advertising and even those of us who covered the campaign would be hard pressed to recall any of them that penetrated.

The sole exception was an ad she put up after Labor Day featuring an excerpt from a 1992 presidential primary debate between Brown and Bill Clinton, in which Clinton attacks Brown on many of the same issues Whitman was trying to press.

At first it looked like a killer ad. But when Brown and his fellow Democrats quickly produced, first, a statement from Clinton and then the former president himself to back Brown and assail Whitman for misusing the comments, it backfired on her. Things went from bad to worse when the former CNN reporter whose long-ago TV story was the basis for the whole controversy came forward to say he’d made a big factual error – and Whitman still refused to take down her ad.

This was a Big Moment in the campaign because it shifted the ground precisely where Team eMeg did not want the campaign to go – away from issues and toward character. The ad was mainly about the issues, in particular Proposition 13 and taxes, and secondarily about Brown’s truthfulness. Here was an icon of the Democratic Party saying Jerry Brown could not be trusted on taxes and spending. That was the single most dangerous charge Brown faced. But the ad turned out to be an exploding cigar. When Clinton repudiated it and Whitman defended it anyway, the story shifted to “liar, liar, pants on fire.” And what Team eMeg did NOT want was a campaign about Whitman’s character.

No one should have been surprised that the LATimes/USC survey found that among likely voters Brown had her beat 2-1 when rated on the quality of “tells the truth.”

-She ran as a brand and over-saturated the market. Months ago, Brown’s campaign manager Steve Glazer predicted to us that the race would be about authenticity, with Whitman, fundamentally a marketing executive whose closest confidant, Henry Gomez, was also a marketing guy, trying to brand herself and Brown, a lifelong public official, running as the real deal.

Calbuzz recognized the danger presented by Whitman’s unlimited marketing budget when we laid out how the “standard quantum limit” could inevitably affect perceptions of voters in a political campaign – even one as big as a California governor’s race.

“Some among the cognoscenti wonder if voters will, at some point, find a chalk-on-a-blackboard cognitive dissonance created by a candidate who spends with no limits  to become  governor in order to cut spending,” we wrote back in April.

“Others suggest that as Whitman’s spending keeps growing exponentially, it will bump up against some outer limit where cash begins to have diminishing returns, or even a negative impact, as voters find repulsive her free-spending ways amid the state’s worst recession in a generation.”

Lo and behold, that’s what happened. Whitman’s advertising became so ubiquitous, so intrusive, that voters found her in their living rooms, uninvited, at all hours of the day and night. It didn’t take long before Whitman’s branding campaign ran up against another scientific principle: The T Factor.

This strong force, according to the Calbuzz Department of Weights and Measures, is based on the power of  Tivo to mute and completely skip advertisements, especially nauseating political spots; it is greater than, or equal to, a voter’s curiosity about what an ad might have to say. (This is represented by the formula T≥b*X, where b=bullshit and X=off.)

Certain political consultants will, of course, dismiss this theorem out of hand because if candidates were to believe it, they would make less money. But not only did Whitman’s advertising over-saturate the market (diminishing exponentially the stickiness of later ads) but they actually fed Brown’s narrative about her: that she was a greedy billionaire with too much money to spend and too little respect for ordinary people.

Every new ad had to overcome that revulsion before its content had a chance of being heard and processed. And in the end, voters just tuned her out.

How Did the Armies of eMeg Blow the Nicky Story?

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Two news items emerged yesterday to underscore some questions Calbuzz has puzzled over since last week’s revelations that Meg Whitman employed an undocumented housekeeper for nine years, fired her unceremoniously and never lifted a finger to help her resettle or become a legal resident.

1) An Ipsos Public Affairs Poll for Reuters found that nine in 10 people know about the incident and it makes a net 13% of voters less likely to support the billionaire Republican candidate for governor and, 2) The total amount of lost wages and expenses that the housekeeper, Nicky Diaz, is seeking to be paid is $6,210 – less than she pays her campaign manager every two weeks.

Here’s what we don’t get:

Why didn’t Whitman and her husband, Dr. Griffith Harsh IV, do something for Nicky? Why not spend $20,000 or so (or more, if need be) to hire her the best immigration attorney she could find to help her see what could be done to stay in the country or ease her return or whatever?

Why not offer her a year’s severance (about $18,000) or help her with re-settlement costs in Mexico? She was, in eMeg’s words, “a member of our extended family” (or as Meg said in one press conference, Freud never sleeping, “an extended member of our family”).

Okay, so Whitman and Harsh had to fire Diaz once they knew she was here illegally, if you buy their story. But they didn’t have to kick her to the curb. They might have avoided statements like this one from Nicky on Tuesday: “Meg, don’t say I was part of your family because you never treated me like I was.”

They could have tried to help her, which would have the advantage of being the right thing to do, would have made everyone feel better about themselves and – not insignificantly – would have demonstrated a measure of decency and compassion when the whole incident became public. Which leads to our second question:

Why – if as Whitman said last week,  she told her senior campaign advisers about the matter at the time — did she not disclose the whole thing publicly back in June or July of 2009?

Sure, she would have taken some guff from Steve Poizner and/or Tom Campbell, who were then challenging her for the GOP nomination. But everyone – everyone – would have understood how she could have wound up with an undocumented housekeeper.

That’s a common experience for many Californians of means and Whitman could have used herself as an example of how complicated the immigration issue is, and why we need a better system for employers to verify the status of people they hire (and make it believable).

Moreover, according to Political Consulting 101, this is standard operating procedure: control the bad news, put it out yourself, do it early to inoculate against a late hit. It borders on campaign consultant malpractice to have handled it as it was handled (unless, of course, Meg herself decided she would just keep the story a secret – ssshhh).

Whitman says she didn’t want to expose Nicky to the possibility of deportation. But had she actually done something to try to prevent that, or helped her in any way, she could have prevented the worst effects from what consultants always warn their clients: assume that everything that can come out will come out.

Calbuzz has tried to ask some of the consultants who were on Meg’s payroll back then – some for a quaint $25,000 a month – whether they knew about the housekeeper problem and what they advised. But nobody is returning our calls. We can’t figure out why.

Why did Whitman decide to attack Brown from a position of utter  weakness at the Univision debate, where the audience was overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking?

It was loopy enough that Whitman kept trying to get out ahead of Nicky’s attorney, the bombastic Gloria Allred, and kept getting blindsided by Allred’s disclosures. Everything was a smear and a lie and absolutely, 100% false. Until it turned out that it wasn’t. And Meg’s nose grew a little more.

All that aside, to turn to Brown on the stage in Fresno and wag a finger and charge him with sacrificing Nicky on the altar of his political ambition (such a line, you wouldn’t believe!) – what the hell was that?

Whitman knows Brown had nothing to do with Nicky’s hiring or firing and that there’s no evidence to support the charge that he had anything to do with the disclosure of her hiring and firing (if Brown had something he wanted to get out, the unpredictable loose cannon Allred would be right there at the waay bottom of his list of candidates).

But she made the aggressive debate charge as if she had some clear and compelling evidence that Brown had engaged in dirty tricks (spreading vicious truths?) when in fact she had bupkus.

So she very effectively led with her chin and Brown very effectively clocked her. Can’t stand on her own two feet, won’t take responsibility, no accountability, won’t crack down on herself. Brown could riff all day on this right-in-his-wheelhouse stuff.

How big is the impact of all this on Whitman’s campaign? Big. Already we’ve heard quantitative and qualitative reports about the bottom dropping out of Whitman’s support among Latinos. But it appears the effect may be wider.

The Ipsos survey, first reliable public poll to report findings regarding eMeg’s problem, in which Brown leads Whitman 50-43%, found that while about nine in 10 voters have heard about the story (and 9/10 of anything is huge in polling), 72% said it would make no difference in how they will vote.

But here’s the kicker: a net 13% of voters, including 11% of independents, said the incident would make them less likely to vote for Whitman. That’s one in 10 independents who are less likely to vote for Whitman because of this one incident.

The survey, conducted Oct. 2-4, included 448 likely voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.7 percentage points.

If anything, we think, it understates the impact of the affair, although the Whitman campaign argues otherwise in a polling memo sent out to news media contending:

The race is still “too-close to-call.”  Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman are in a virtual tie among all the voters surveyed, with 43 percent for Brown and 41 percent for Whitman. The race is tied 30%-30% among the sub-set of voters who say they “strongly” support their choice and are unlikely to switch. Among the 85 percent of the sample we consider most likely to vote (based on past voting history, intensity of opinion, and demographic profile), the race is a dead heat at 44%-44%.

Brown continues to lead in the North and Whitman in the South. Whitman’s share of the Hispanic or Latino vote is still significant at 30 percent, compared to Brown’s 45 percent.

Whitman seems to have weathered the Gloria Allred attack, owing in no small measure to Allred’s negative image. Only 24 percent of California voters hold a favorable impression of Allred, while 68 percent have an unfavorable impression of her. By comparison. Brown and Whitman are seen in a better light. Brown’s favorable-unfavorable ratio is 51%-41% and Whitman’s is 44%-44%.

Putting aside the question of why they’re putting out a poll that shows their candidate losing, inquiring minds want to know: Is it remotely possible that 92% of voters have an opinion about Gloria Allred? Really?

We can’t wait for the data showing how she matches up one-on-one with Meg.

Sabado Gigante! Jerry Smacks Meg in Fresno Brawl

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

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.’”

Ouch.

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.

Jerry’s New Ads; Meyer on Meg; R = eMeg Squared

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

With Team Whitman furiously trying to spin away the story about Meg Whitman’s undocumented housekeeper and both sides preparing for today’s Univision debate in Fresno, Jerry Brown unloaded two new ads designed to keep Whitman on defense.

One is a positive saying Brown balanced budgets without raising taxes and took on Wall Street banks, mortgage scammers and public officials. “Knowledge and know-how that works for you” is the slogan — a subtle suggestion that he has it and she doesn’t.

The negative ad is far more compelling, saying the “real Meg Whitman” was caught reaping millions for insider stock deals when she was on the board of Goldman Sachs, using the words “conflict of interest” and “corrupt,” charging that she paid herself $120 million while laying off 10% of eBay’s workforce, and asking, “Shouldn’t character matter?”

As Calbuzz noted Friday, demonstrating character is exactly Whitman’s challenge, after it was revealed she had employed an illegal immigrant in her home for years — knowingly or not — before she started talking tough about cracking down on them. And with his pals in the SEIU on the air with an ad speaking to that issue, Brown attacked Whitman as a greedy Wall Street predator.

Whitman’s response was fast and furious. Said spokesperson Andrea Jones Rivera:

“This ad is an outright lie. Meg’s salary was under a million dollars and it was approved by the eBay board of directors.* After swearing that voters would ‘always get the truth’, Jerry Brown has abandoned his promise in favor of a smear campaign that intentionally distorts the truth. In the ad, Jerry Brown goes so far as to cynically attack Meg’s brief service on the Goldman Sachs board, despite the fact that Brown’s own sister is currently a high ranking executive at Goldman Sachs. The truth is Meg Whitman was rated one of the top bosses and CEOs for her time at eBay and we will put her business record up against Jerry’s 40 year political career anytime.”

Meanwhile, Whitman continues to pummel Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal who opposed Proposition 13 and drove up unemployment and the state deficit. Surely that’s why Brown argues himself in his positive ad: “As Governor, I’ll cap government salaries and pensions. On the budget – we have to face reality. Make do with what we have, and no taxes without voter approval.”

Polling suggests voters appreciate Whitman’s business background but they aren’t sure they like her or that she’s got the skills and experience (“knowledge and know-how”) to command California government. On the other hand, they know Brown has what it takes to be governor and they like him pretty much; they’re just not sure they can trust him not to pick their pocket.

Although jobs, budgets, environment, water, education and public safety are kinds of issues governors actually must confront, the curbside political world is wondering today how eMeg’s housekeeper issue will come up in the Univision debate — with an expected audience of millions of Latinos — and what Whitman and Brown will say about it.

No doubt, Whitman would like to be asked why, after hammering on the issue of illegal immigration, did she not report Nicky Diaz to the authorities after learning that she was here without documentation. That way she can come across as sympathetic (although she has to be careful not to sound too condescending).

She likely would not like to be asked why she didn’t use a teensy weensy portion of her vast wealth to hire Diaz an immigration attorney or whether she actually said, “You never have seen me and I have never seen you,” as Diaz recounts the conversation. (Of course, denying it is calling Nicky a liar, so that’s tricky, too.)

Brown, the betting suggests, will keep his trap shut and let Whitman stew in her own juices unless Meg charges to his face that he was behind the whole episode. At which point, it’s hard to predict. He could cooly note that it was not he who hired an illegal immigrant to work in her house.  Or he could fire back at how outraged he is to be accused of the “politics of personal destruction.” We’ll know soon enough.

* Thank you Steve Harmon for this reportorial note: “Salaries are rarely the true measure of a CEO’s net worth in their rarified world of dividends, stocks and bonuses. Forbes Magazine, in September, 2008, and the New York Times, reported that Whitman received a $120.4 million, in salary, bonus and the value of her excercised options in her final year, despite eBay’s stock plummeting 49 percent.”

Meyer Carefully Evaluates Meg’s Skills

The slashing pen of Tom Meyer, world renowned editorial cartoonist and dressed-to-the-nines Calbuzzer extraordinaire today examines the deeper political implications of eMeg’s using the famous phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” multiple times during her Tuesday night debate with Jerry Brown.

Us, we’re still wondering why Her Megness used the aphorism over and over and kept expecting a different result; like, maybe somebody might actually laugh when she repeated it, oh say, the 13th or 14th time. Must be that exquisite sense of comic timing she has to go with her wonderful ability to laugh at herself and her highly-developed sense of self-awareness.

All that aside, a wide-ranging Calbuzz investigation of more than 10 minutes worth of Googling reveals that there is not a single shred of citable evidence to support her attribution of the quote to Albert Einstein (not a big week for Meg and documentary evidence). There is , in fact, a considerable debate around the internets about the original source, with the current conventional wisdom crediting Rita Mae Brown, who actually did write it down in a book once. You could look it up.

And speaking of misusing hoary phrases: Calbuzz was appalled this week by the widespread misuse of the phrase “October surprise” to describe the bombshell news about Whitman’s housekeeper, which Gloria Allred dropped on the candidate’s head on Wednesday morning.

In his essential “Political Dictionary,” the late great William Safire traced the phrase back to the 1980 presidential election, when then Republican vice presidential candidate George Bush the Elder warned that President Jimmy Carter “is a politically tough fellow, he’ll do anything to get reelected, and let’s be prepared for some October surprise.”

Of course, it turned out that the surprise was on Carter, as the Iran hostage crisis that had bedeviled him for much of his term was instantly resolved when the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the release of the hostages shortly after Mr. Jimmy lost to Ronald Reagan. Safire continues:

By 1991, the noun phrase was being applied to any controversial or unpleasant event in October. (emphasis ours)

Let’s be blunt: The Allred-Nicky Diaz press conference triggering the Meg and the Maid drama took place on Wednesday, September 29; while it might qualify as a “September Shocker,” it most definitely was not an “October Surprise.”

And while we’re at it:  Let’s make it perfectly clear that eMeg’s big laugh line at the debate – making Jerry governor is like “putting Dracula in charge of a  blood bank” – is a total rip off from none other than…Jane Fonda. Hanoi Jane used the line in whacking Carter for his appointment of James Schlesinger as Energy Secretary about the same time that October became so surprising:

“Putting Schlesinger in charge of nuclear power is like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank,” Jane Fonda orated to the cheering demonstrators at the foot of the Capitol steps.

Mega-kudos and H/T for that catch to Calbuzzer Debra Hall who, besides being brilliant, eagle-eyed and ever-alert, also has the buffest arms of any marketing consultant in California.

Polly Wolly Doodle: Our old friend Steve Lopez of the LA Times has cleverly lined up a polygraph expert, LA PI John Grogan, to give eMeg a polygraph test on whether she ever knew about that letter from the Social Security Administration. After saying she’d be glad to take a lie detector test, Meg backtracked and said she’d do it only if Jerry and Nicky would, too. But what the heck, Meg — this could be a great moment in gubernatorial leadership. All expenses paid!

Why Meg v Maid Saga Is a Big Deal: The Latino Vote

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

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?