- Associated Press - Saturday, October 2, 2010

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman accused Democratic rival Jerry Brown on Saturday of orchestrating a scandal over her former illegal immigrant housekeeper, a charge that prompted Brown to fire back and say Whitman won’t take accountability and is not fit to be governor.

“The real tragedy here is Nicky. After Nov. 2, no one’s going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz,” Whitman said, referring to the former housekeeper, and turning to face Brown directly shortly after the start of their second debate. “And Jerry, you know you should be ashamed, you and your surrogates … put her deportation at risk. You put it out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions.”

Brown responded by saying Whitman was trying to evade responsibility.

“Don’t run for governor if you can’t stand up on your own two feet and say, ‘Hey I made a mistake,’ ” Brown said in a moment fraught with tension as the two candidates, neck-and-neck in the polls, turned away from the audience and faced each other directly. “You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don’t take accountability.”

Whitman is trying to regain momentum with Latino voters after a tumultuous week. She was forced to explain how she had an illegal immigrant housekeeper — Nicky Diaz Santillan — on the payroll for nine years and, according to her, didn’t know it.

She also is addressing allegations from the housekeeper’s attorney that she and her husband should have suspected the worker’s status because of a Social Security Administration letter mailed to their home in 2003.

The pressure Whitman has been under all week erupted as the candidates took their fourth question of the debate, which is being sponsored by Univision and was the first California gubernatorial debate to be broadcast in Spanish. The exchange came after the candidates faced questions about jobs, public education and the housing crisis.

“So, this is a very sad situation, and the Nicky that I saw on the press conference a few days ago was not the Nicky that I knew for nine years,” Whitman said as she began to address the issue that has thrown her campaign off track. “And you what my first clue was? She kept referring to me as Ms. Whitman. And for the 10 years, nine years she worked for me, she called me Meg and I called her Nicky.”

After their dramatic exchange, technical problems forced a delay, but they came back to the topic of illegal immigration when the debate resumed.

Getting control of the controversy and putting it behind her are crucial for Whitman, who has campaigned on a platform of holding employers accountable for hiring illegal workers.

Ms. Whitman obviously didn’t crack down on herself,” Brown said. “This is a question of talking out of both sides of her mouth.”

Whitman says that after she learned her maid was illegal, she did not turn her in to immigration authorities. But she rejected her maid’s request to help her pursue citizenship, even though she has said the housekeeper was like a member of her extended family.

“You’re going around this state saying employers must be accountable for hiring unlawful people, there ought to be raids on businesses, there’s no path to citizenship,” Brown said. “This a terrible thing we have — all these millions of (illegal) people, but you don’t want a path to citizenship.”

The billionaire candidate and former chief executive of eBay has worked hard to court independents and Latinos, who are crucial to the campaign of any Republican running in a state in which Democrats hold a 13.4 percentage point edge among registered voters.

She has trained a large share of her campaign account — $119 million of it from her personal fortune — on the Central Valley, which has been hit hard by the recession and is filled with communities where unemployment afflicts a quarter of the population or more.

The forced acknowledgment by Whitman and her husband this week that they fired Nicky Diaz Santillan when she confessed to being an illegal immigrant in June 2009 has thrown off Whitman’s controlled campaign messages about reviving the economy, controlling state spending and reforming education.

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