A small housekeeping problem

Meg Whitman’s campaign for California governor gets tripped up by allegations of hiring illegal labour
A small housekeeping problem
Reed Saxon/AP

Hard work is the theme that has underpinned Meg Whitman’s political campaign. The Republican nominee for governor of California and former eBay CEO has often drawn on the image of her “intrepid and adventurous” mother Martha, a homemaker who sprang to action in the Second World War, learning how to overhaul jeep and airplane engines. “I am my mother’s daughter,” Whitman has said. Hard work is also what helped her become the fourth-wealthiest woman in California, with a net worth of $1.3 billion. She was a good student at Princeton University and Harvard Business School. She gained experience at some of America’s largest corporations, including Proctor & Gamble, and went on to build her own empire, turning the fledgling online auctioneer eBay, with its 30 employees, into a 15,000-strong Silicon Valley powerhouse.

As governor, Whitman has promised she would apply that work ethic to fix California’s $19-billion deficit. By 2015, she would create two million new jobs—and they would not go to illegal migrants. Whitman has been tougher on immigration than her Democratic challenger, Jerry Brown, and has even called for stricter sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers. “I am 100 per cent against amnesty for illegal immigrants. Period,” she said. But now, in the final days before the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election, allegations have surfaced that Whitman herself was actually the employer of an illegal immigrant. From 2000 to 2009, Nicandra Diaz Santillan worked as a housekeeper for Whitman and Whitman’s husband Griffith Harsh in their Silicon Valley mansion. Though Whitman says she fired Santillan in 2009, after learning that the maid from Mexico did not have legal status in America, Santillan claims that her boss knew she was undocumented since at least 2003.

The would-be governor denied that she knew the maid was illegal. Two days later, though, Whitman changed her story, saying her husband might have seen a letter from the Social Security Administration, which raised discrepancies about the housekeeper’s immigration status. Whether this will affect Whitman’s campaign remains to be seen. Her race with Brown is already tight, and questions about her integrity may have an impact. Latino voters, who make up 21 per cent of California’s electoral roll, may now have further reason to distrust her: Spanish-language and local TV have aired videos that show Santillan tearfully describing her time in Whitman’s employ as a “nightmare.” And California’s Service Employees International Union, which supports Brown, announced a $5-million ad campaign targeted at Latinos that will paint Whitman as a “two-faced woman” who attacks illegal workers to try to win elections and then employs them at home.

Whitman has attempted damage control. She has said she’d be “delighted” to take a polygraph test to prove she’s innocent of knowing about Santillan’s status. She’s also denounced the allegations as a “baseless smear attack” by Brown. The stakes are high: she’s invested a record $119 million (about one-tenth) of her fortune into her bid to make it to the governor’s office in America’s most populous state. Money, though, may no longer be enough.