Interrupting Meg

It seems unfathomable that Meg Whitman’s $120-million spending bonanza aimed at transforming her from a former eBay CEO into an influential California governor could yield anything less than a victorious return.

But money can only take you so far in politics. And Whitman has discovered first-hand the power of its limits: she’s been unable to translate her hefty spending habits into a commanding lead over crafty political veteran Jerry Brown.

Still, her candidacy has been a first-rate example of what happens when a corporate star turns into a politically hungry neophyte. Loaded with a roster of ace consultants, an innovative technological strategy and an overwhelming presence on the airwaves, Whitman’s powerful campaign mechanism has made her competitive in heavily Democratic California.

The economic haze of the Golden State has been well documented. With a jaw-dropping budget gap, high unemployment and a dysfunctional legislature, Whitman’s platform of creating jobs while cutting taxes and spending has found a receptive audience. Her cinematic-like media campaign and the careful management of her public persona, as well as her robotic repetition of her message, has left an almost too good to be true impression upon voters. Whitman has been able to focus the campaign on economic issues — which play to her expertise — and largely avoid issues like immigration or her lack of political experience.

But in an election year as unpredictable as this one, it was only a matter of time before the harmony of the Whitman chorus would be interrupted by a political bombshell. The campaign was almost too smooth for its own good.

At a teary-eyed press conference last week, former Whitman housekeeper Nicky Diaz Santillian came from nowhere to accuse her former boss of cheating her out of wages and “throwing [her] away like a piece of garbage” because she feared that Santillian’s illegal status would become a political liability. Compounding the problem was the charge by Santillian’s lawyer Gloria Allred that Whitman continued to employ Santillian for years after discovering that Santillian’s Social Security number was not hers.  Inevitably, the allegation precipitated a political firestorm that featured a trio of hot-button issues: race, class, and immigration.

The Santillian debacle has become an untamable force. Attempts to extinguish the controversy from the headlines have failed, with voters and the press still buzzing over what Whitman knew and when she knew it.

Polls have yet to show the state of the race post-Santillian. But make no mistake, the damage has been done.

Whitman’s primary ads with former governor Pete Wilson promising that she would be “tough as nails” on combating illegal immigration will come back to haunt her.  The emphasis she has placed on cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants will now lack credibility and may even induce a cringe from those who think she lacks the moral underpinnings to denounce a practice that she, knowingly or unknowingly, participated in.

Her well-publicized overtures towards Hispanic voters may also now hinge on what light they choose to see the controversy in. Will a majority choose to see her as having warmly brought Santillian into her home for nine years, only to be duped by false documents verifying the legality of her presence? Or will Whitman be viewed as a cold, calculating billionaire who kicked an “extended member” of her family to the curb the moment she realized her political ambitions were threatened?

True, the controversy will lose its legs and eventually fade from the bright lights of public scrutiny, but the reverberations could be felt from now until Election Day.

The key for Whitman will be to move past the current circus-like theatrics surrounding the race and recast the terms of the debate along economic lines. That means talking more about her plan to reduce unemployment and less about taking a polygraph test to disprove the allegations of an ex-housekeeper.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.

  • sanjay

    GOP is finding out what diversity and mass invasion did to california. The same will happen to the whole country.

    USA will become greater mexico.

  • capegirl

    The lawyer who referred Nicky Diaz to GA was named by GA in an interview with Mark Levin on his radio show. It was Van Der Hout, a lefty attorney who has been involved in fairly radical, moderately high profile immigration matters before this. Why the AP is saying that GA didn’t identify him, probably more of the biased reportage we have come to expect from the MSM.
    The sad thing in all this is that most voters in CA seem to be under the impression that the facts of the case are as GA has tried to state them, not as they actually are. This is an obvious Democrat smear campaign and it would be interesting to know how it was orchestrated and by whom and with what money from where. Be that as it may, if CA voters elect Brown, they will get more of the same: union stranglehold on tax dollars, continued decline of business investment in the state, higher income flight, poorer schools, despite the money being spent, more foreclosures, etc etc. Thanks you lefty lawyers for helping yourselves to your share of the graft and corruption endemic in the state. Probably the first thing Brown will do if he is elected is cry for a bailout from the feds. Cynical, no, just realistic

    • sorebird

      What we, the rest of the country, needs to guard against is a bailout for CA. after Jerry Brown is elected, screw bailing out CA., or any other state. If CA. wants Jerry Brown fine and dandy but they should have to live with the consequence, no bailout for Jerry Browns unions.

      If CA. voters want to trust the MSM then they deserve what they get.

  • johno413

    In laying out an otherwise convincing example of Whitman as the private sector veteran entering politics, you omit one key factor. Had she adopted the “D” instead of the “R”, everything in CA would be significantly different. The expense and the challenges she faces are as much due to the Dem machine in the state, as to her and her positions. The fact that Allred is engineering such a blatantly obvious attack is the strongest evidence that the machine is in full battle mode. Had she, for example, run in TX the cost and effort would be completely different, even though the size of the electorate is less dissimilar, comparatively.

    I think the current circus-like theatrics should be allowed to expire on their own. From my perspective as an outsider, there is nothing credible about the attack and Whitman’s only mistake is giving Brown some ammunition in her initial response. If she continues to take the high road and remain outwardly sympathetic to the ex-employee many people who can independently observe and think for themselves will recognize the kabuki theater playing out in front of them.

    On the other hand, groups not directly affiliated with her campaign could take charge of exposing the true facts. For example, someone could make a larger public spectacle of the employee’s fraud and ask why ICE is doing nothing. Is the AG interfering? Is Washington complicit in the attack? Leaving the game of dirty politics to others is her best approach. I’m no strategist, but it seems the way to many voters’ heart is to show just how the powerful are throwing a “little person” under the bus.