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.