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.
"I think it was pretty much (Whitman) on the defense for most of the debate," said Jeffrey Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, who watched the debate in person. "I don't think she handled the housekeeper issues good enough. 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 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 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 César Chávez in his first answer and noted that during his first stint as governor, he signed the nation's first Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which empowered farmworkers seeking to form unions.
Other areas where there were stark differences included the support of higher education for illegal immigrants.
One question was posed by an unidentified Fresno State senior who admitted she was undocumented. The student said she was brought to the United States at a very young age by her parents, eventually graduated at the top of her high school class and is now poised to earn a degree with a triple major -- political science, Latin American studies and Spanish.
She asked about supporting the federal DREAM Act, which would give citizenship to some U.S. high school graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children.
Brown, currently the state's attorney general, said he supports federal legislation. He then said he would sign legislation, which Schwarzenegger recently vetoed, that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to receive financial aid from the state's public universities and colleges.
Whitman congratulated the student on her success, but after noting it was "a tough situation," she said that with scarce resources in lean economic times and with legal residents being turned away from universities, she could not support the state legislation.
The issue of Diaz Santillan, a Mexican national who for nine years worked as Whitman's housekeeper, was the subject of the debate's fourth question. She got the job using falsified documents, and was fired after she turned to Whitman in June 2009 for help legalizing her status.
Whitman told the audience that it was the hardest decision of her life to fire Diaz Santillan, and "it broke my heart."
She then accused Brown 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.
"You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions," he said. "But you don't take accountability."