FRESNO, California -- Republican 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 responsibility and is not fit to be governor.
The issue dominated the candidates' second debate, held in one of the most economically distressed regions of the state, after a week that has upended Whitman's campaign.
Whitman had hoped to use the debate at California State University, Fresno to court Latino voters. She has worked hard to win support among 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.
Instead, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay found herself on the defensive and seeking to regain momentum with those voters after a tumultuous week in which she was forced to explain how she had an illegal immigrant housekeeper 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 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.
The forum at California State University, Fresno was hosted by Spanish-language network Univision and was the first California gubernatorial debate broadcast in Spanish.
"The real tragedy here is Nicky. After Nov. 2, no one's going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz," Whitman said, 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."
Brown, the state Attorney General, served two terms as governor of California from 1975-83.
Gloria Allred, the housekeeper's attorney, is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates. Whitman told reporters after the debate the controversy is a sideshow from the issues Californians want to focus on, such as jobs and education.
But immigration issues dominated the debate. The pressure erupted as the candidates took their fourth question, 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 know 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 technical problems forced a delay, Brown and Whitman had several lengthy exchanges over high-profile immigration issues, including whether illegal immigrants already in the country should be able to seek citizenship; the DREAM Act that would let U.S. high school graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military; and cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers.
"If we don't hold employers accountable, we will never get our arms around this ... problem," Whitman said during the debate.
"Ms. Whitman obviously didn't crack down on herself," he 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."
Whitman reiterated her opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and tried to shift blame for immigration problems to the federal government, saying the first priority should be securing the border with Mexico. Brown said he would treat all Californians equally "as God's children."
"You don't just bring in semi-serfs and say do our dirty work, and then we're finished with you like an orange and just throw it away. That's after you've squeezed it. That's not right," he said.
Hispanics comprise 37 percent of California's 38.6 million people and are expected to account for about 15 percent of voters in the Nov. 2 election, according to a recent Field Poll.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released this week showed Brown with only a slight lead over Whitman among Hispanic voters, but the survey was taken before the housekeeper controversy began dominating the race.