FRESNO -- The controversy over Meg Whitman's housekeeper took center stage -- and provided some fireworks -- in the second gubernatorial debate Saturday between the former eBay CEO and Jerry Brown, her Democratic Party opponent.
Moderator Maria Elena Salinas of the co-sponsoring Univision television network noted that the debate in Fresno State's Satellite Student Union was the first gubernatorial clash in the state to be held in Spanish.
But even its historical nature could not overshadow the matter of Nicky Diaz Santillan.
Both candidates touched on job creation, education, immigration, health care and how to handle undocumented students, but Whitman's housekeeper -- an undocumented worker -- always returned to the fore, even when the candidates briefly addressed the media after the debate.
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At one point, Whitman told the debate audience that it was the hardest decision of her life to fire Diaz Santillan, and "it broke my heart." She then turned the question on Brown, accusing him and his "surrogates" of stirring up the issue as a political stunt. After Nov. 2, she said, Brown and his allies would abandon Diaz Santillan and leave her to possible deportation.
"You put it out there, and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions," Whitman told Brown.
Brown fired right back, telling Whitman that she blames everybody else for this matter. He told her that if she can't be accountable, she can't be a leader.
"You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions," he said. "But you don't take accountability."
Jeffrey Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, said he felt Whitman was on the defense for most of the debate.
"I don't think she handled the housekeeper issues (well) enough," said Cummins, who watched the debate in person. "It kind of knocked her off balance, and it kept her off balance from the message she wanted to get out."
It's an issue with political overtones, given Whitman's hard-line stance in favor of cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. That and other immigration-related questions helped draw clear distinctions for the debate's largely Latino audience, said Radio Bilingüe executive director and co-founder Hugo Morales, who also was in the audience.
Polls taken just before Diaz Santillan went public with her plight showed Whitman was making inroads among the state's increasingly influential Latino population. A third or more of the Latino vote, experts say, is critical for a Whitman victory in the Nov. 2 election.
Given her answers, said Morales, Whitman likely hurt her standing among that population.
"Whitman forgot who she was talking to, who the audience was," Morales said.
Brown, by contrast, invoked farm labor leader Cesar Chavez in his first answer and noted that during his first stint as California's governor, he signed the nation's first Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which empowered farmworkers seeking to form unions.