Meg Whitman's meltdown

The GOP candidate's hypocrisy is helping to hand the California governor's office back to Jerry Brown

By Joan Walsh
October 5, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)
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Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown

Like a lot of California Democrats, I've been waiting for Jerry Brown to start his campaign for governor. Sure, he began running ads last month -- terrible ads, in my opinion, featuring Brown as a talking head, that mostly serve to remind people he was already governor, a long, long time ago, whatever his accomplishments.

I've always assumed Brown would win anyway, though, because he's got one key asset: He's not Meg Whitman. And during Saturday's Univision debate, I spotted another Brown asset: He knows how to make a moral and emotional appeal to our sense of justice, that California used to be a better place, and can be one again.


Whoever is behind the sudden emergence of Whitman's former maid, Nicky Diaz -- the woman the former eBay CEO says deceived her about having legal immigration status, going so far as to steal a letter from the federal government notifying Whitman about her illegal status (that turned out not to be true), but whom Whitman fired immediately upon "learning" the truth -- it's a defining story for Whitman, and not in a good way. I am sensitive to all the ways women are held to a different and higher standard than men in politics, and I search for descriptors that capture Whitman that are not somehow stereotypical.

But her series of supposedly folksy television ads, in which she lectures California about its problems and promises simplistic CEO solutions, have not worn well. I have heard her called a "schoolmarm," a "nag" and a "shrew." All those words are gendered and unfair. The best phrase I can come up with to describe Whitman is that she is a wealthy, entitled, out-of-touch hypocrite, and her handling of the Diaz story crystallizes that for voters.

I'm sure it had to smart that the issue emerged on the eve of Whitman's debate with Brown on Univision, which gave both candidates a chance to reach the state's growing Latino population, now almost a third of California's population. But Whitman's tone-deaf handling of the issues of immigration and opportunity related to her employing an undocumented worker was breathtaking. From their opening statements, the contrast between Brown and Whitman was stark. Asked to describe their outreach to Latinos, Whitman said woodenly, "I have a significant team of Latinos working on my campaign. My entire website is translated into Spanish. I have published my jobs book on how to create more jobs for the Latino audience in Spanish, and, of course, we have been on Spanish-language radio and Spanish-language television." Brown pointed to his signing the California Agricultural Labor Relations act, which he said "empowered mostly undocumented people to be able to pick by a secret ballot the advocate of their choice, the union of their choice, and I'm not ashamed of the fact that people, particularly when they're poor and when they don't have power, and they don't even speak English, they need a strong lawyer advocate standing in their corner, and that's exactly what the farm labor bill did." He added a pledge " to be fair. I'm going to treat everybody, whether they're documented or not, as God's child, and my brothers and sisters."


Where Brown used language about relationships, Whitman was stern and remote. And then, when she brought relationship into her dealings with Nicky Diaz, her sense of entitlement was remarkable. She complained that "the Nicky that I saw on the press conference three days ago was not the Nicky that I knew for nine years. And you know my first clue was she kept referring to me as Ms. Whitman and for the 10 years she worked -- nine years she worked for me -- she called me Meg and I called her Nicky." Being on a first-name basis with your maid is a sure sign you're a woman of the people, of course – but the fact that Whitman fired Diaz the moment she found out she was undocumented (and that's if you believe Whitman's version of the story) kind of undermines her "we were like family" fairy tale. Unbelievably, Whitman then blamed Brown for leaking the Diaz story (which he denies) and repeated an earlier call "to hold employers accountable, all employers accountable for hiring only documented workers."

And Brown jumped on her:

There you saw something. This is incredible, Meg, I didn't want to hit you on this, but when you try to evade responsibility, you're going around the state saying, employers must be accountable for hiring unlawful people. There ought to be raids on businesses. There's no path to citizenship, no path. And young Latinos who may have lived here their whole lives and got A's in high school should be barred from going to Fresno State. And then what happened here? You're the one who falsely defamed this woman by saying she stole your mail. It came out that it's not true and you had information, or at least you had enough to know there was something wrong here. So you're the one who says, hey, I, you know -- everyone's gotta be accountable, this is a terrible thing, we have all these millions of people, but you don't want to pass the citizenship. I mean, let's be sympathetic and let's really empathize with the millions of people that are in the shadows and you wanna keep them in the shadows and now you are trying to evade responsibility.

It was later in the debate that Brown's not always popular appeal to social justice, in this case regarding the rights of undocumented immigrants, came through most strongly (h/t Calitics). A college student of Mexican descent who entered the country illegally as a young child asked about the federal and state DREAM Acts, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people to get a higher education and then work in the U.S. The self-described honors student at Fresno State graduated first in her class in high school and said she wanted to contribute to the California economy.


Whitman opened with a sarcastic-sounding salvo: "Well, first of all I am so pleased by your success and you were able to get a kindergarten through 12 grade education system in California even though you are undocumented." Then she went on to tell her why she opposed both DREAM acts.

Here is the challenge we face: Our resources are scarce. We are in terrible economic times and slots have been eliminated at the California State University system - I think they're down by 40,000 students. Same is true at the ... the University of California system. Programs have been cut, and California citizens have been denied admission to these universities and I don't think it's fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher universities and favor undocumenteds.

I personally consider this a very tough issue, and I don't want to demagogue Whitman about it. Reasonable people can disagree. Of course, the real issue is the way we've beggared our once-stellar system of public universities. But here's how Brown replied:


Yes, to the federal Dream Act, which I can't do anything about, except advocate and yes, to the state Dream Act which I can do something about because our current governor just vetoed a proposal and I would have signed that bill. Now Ms. Whitman goes beyond opposing the Dream Act, she wants to kick you out of this school because you are not documented and that is wrong, morally and humanly.

Later, on the same subject, Brown continued:

If I am elected governor, I'm the leader of the largest state in the union.  I'm going to do whatever I can to get this comprehensive immigration reform ... There's a lot of politics now and the fact that my opponent is so strongly against the path, path to citizenship -- then what happens? Do we deport 2 million people in California, 11 million people throughout the country? This is a real human tragedy. It's a problem and these people are working for Ms. Whitman. They're working all over the place, in this university, in restaurants and picking the food in our fields ... What we need to do is to as Californians we need to demand that our federal government create a secure border, yes but a path to immigration and a way to handle this thing instead of just saying it doesn't exist. We don't know about these people. They're in the shadows ... so we can forget about it, it's wrong, morally wrong.

Coincidentally or not, Brown picked up the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee the morning after the Univision debate. Endorsing Brown, the Times summed up the case against the Republican candidate: "Whitman argues that her role as chief executive of the online auction website EBay somehow makes her the right person to govern the nation's most populous state, yet her slate of policy positions is seemingly more calculated to win the approval of angry voters and profit-seeking business leaders than to address the actual problems facing the state." 

She has been a demagogue not only on the issue of illegal immigration, but also on welfare -- which, of course, Ronald Reagan used to defeat Brown's father, Pat, 44 years ago -- running ads that say she'll promise to make welfare recipients look for work, when most already have to, since California passed its own tough welfare law in 1986, a decade before Bill Clinton made work requirements national. She has said she'd cut California's already slashed welfare benefits to pay for higher education, but meanwhile, she's also promising to eliminate the state's capital gains tax and lower other tax rates, so she's really picking on the poorest in the state to pay for tax cuts for billionaires like herself.


Brown's campaign still worries me. When I reached out via e-mail to find out how I could keep up with Brown's campaign and appearances, a staffer told me to register for to find out about local events and campaign groups. That was fine; I did that covering the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns during the primary, and it was hugely helpful. The sites told me not only where the candidate was, but what kind of events supporters were organizing on their behalf. Obama kicked Clinton's butt in that kind of online organizing and tracking, sometimes having five times the number of events she did, but Clinton never had fewer than a dozen in a given city or even neighborhood. wasn't quite so helpful.

Just a week ago, I plugged in my ZIP code to find nearby groups; there were none, for any of the San Francisco ZIP codes I tried. I asked for Brown events within a 30-mile radius of S.F., and I found three: leafleting in Oakland, a debate-watch party planned for mid-October in Marin, and the Italian American festival in North Beach. 

I typed in events in a 50-mile radius and I got another half dozen or so, similar kinds of things, debate-watch and leafleting. I started to think, well, maybe there would be more going on in Los Angeles? Within 50 miles of downtown L.A. I found five.


Brown's campaign complacence has alarmed me, especially when Whitman started to spend some of her $120 million war chest on ads trashing Brown. And when she used an old clip of President Clinton chiding Brown in the 1992 primary, leading Brown to snipe at Clinton, I thought: There's that old, glib, unserious Jerry Brown again. He apologized before it could become more than a two-day story, and a magnanimous Clinton endorsed Brown the next day and promised to campaign for him in October.

There are still four weeks until Election Day, and Brown could stumble again. But Whitman's handling of her maid scandal has given the Democrat an opportunity to paint his opponent as Lady Meg, out of touch with voters, angry that her former maid called her "Ms. Whitman" at a press conference during which the maid wept about being treated "like a piece of garbage." Personal mistakes only matter on the campaign trail when they reinforce notions voters already had about a candidate, and Whitman was already coming to seem like a cosseted member of the monied elite, who didn't bother to vote for years, who now pretends to be a friend of public universities after endowing her alma mater (and that of her famously callow sons), Princeton University, with a Whitman College.

The L.A. Times political columnist George Skelton said Whitman's handling of the Diaz situation "cast her in the role of hypocrite" because she "pandered to" the far right during the GOP primary nomination. There's still a lot of time for Whitman to recover from what happened in the last week, but there's not a lot of evidence she has either the political or moral compass to let herself do so. 

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2010 Elections Meg Whitman