Valley debate on heels of housekeeper scandal

FRESNO -- Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown both have tough questions to answer as the two face off today in a Fresno debate aimed at reaching Latino voters across California.

Staged in the state's agricultural heartland and broadcast by the nation's leading Latino television network, the second of three gubernatorial debates comes after Whitman acknowledged that she employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years.

Whitman is under pressure to explain why she didn't act on a 2003 letter from the federal government, signaling that Nicky Diaz Santillan might be in the country illegally, and why she fired the housekeeper only after launching her campaign.

Brown faces accusations he colluded with Diaz Santillan's lawyer, Gloria Allred, in dropping the political bombshell just as he faces Whitman in the Fresno debate.

Whitman, a former eBay CEO, and Brown, the state's attorney general and a former governor, will debate at Fresno State this morning. The event is open by invitation only but will be aired at 4 p.m. on Univision.

Beyond the housekeeper issue, the debate likely will cater heavily to both valley and Latino issues -- possibly touching on securing a reliable water supply for agriculture, air quality, undocumented students attending the state's public colleges and universities, and giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"The Central Valley is one of the key regions of the state, and it's not lost on the politicians," said Jaime Regulado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Indeed, Whitman considers this part of California a stronghold. It is a region of moneyed agricultural landowners who are staunch supporters of her campaign.

Brown, by contrast, has not paid much attention to the region but is no doubt counting on its booming Latino population -- for years a key Democratic Party constituency -- to back his gubernatorial bid.

The race has spawned an advertising battle as the candidates and their supporters angle for Latino votes. A coalition of unions, called Working Californians, has debuted a Spanish-language TV ad accusing Whitman of misrepresenting her positions on immigration and other matters in her own TV ad targeting Spanish-speaking voters. The ad is set to run in the Central Valley and Southern California.

The Whitman campaign countered Friday with a Spanish-language radio ad that touts her experience leading the online auction firm eBay.

It's unclear what Latino voters think about all this.

Some polls are showing that Whitman, a Republican, may be closing Brown's once-formidable advantage among Hispanic voters.

This week, a poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Latino voters favored Brown by seven percentage points -- down from 24 points in July.

And a Los Angeles Times/USC poll this week found Whitman's support among Latino voters at 32 percent. Several analysts say Whitman needs support from only 33 percent to 38 percent of Latino voters to have a chance at victory next month.

Both polls, however, came before the housekeeper issue. The explosive allegations came after Whitman said employers who hire undocumented workers should be held responsible for it.

"The key question is: When did she know it? That's the bottom line," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based political analyst.

Hoffenblum said Whitman's strongest appeal among Latinos will be for middle-class voters and business owners. They are the voters, he said, who supported then-Gov. Pete Wilson until Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants.

What Whitman has to be concerned about, Hoffenblum said, is how those Latinos react to the housekeeper issue.

Jeffrey Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor, feels "the damage is done" for Whitman. "I don't think it can get much worse," he said.

The key today for Whitman is to confront the issue "and try and get past it," he said.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

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